Chances grow for centre parties if SF and the DUP seriously split

Which split will grow wider – DUP-TUV or Sinn Fein- Éirígí? Are the main parties doing more than suffering from a bout of activists’ fever? Or could widening fissures really throw Northern Ireland politics into the melting pot? If the threat to Sinn Fein in the north really is substantial – and I’m not convinced – the trend presents a challenge to the centrist parties the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP they can hardly afford to ignore. With the TUV and Éirígí challenges being basically anti-Assembly, it’s a no brainer that the centrists should gather under a power sharing banner. If they push hard on the cracks, real cross- community opportunities could open up, presenting them with the chance of staging a major recovery. They should haul in Alliance, Greens and any other like minded decent democratic souls. In any case, they should use the summer to work out new ways of exploiting a phenomenon that wasn’t supposed to happen – that the parties of the extremes, the DUP and Sinn Fein can each be outflanked, even after capturing the commanding heights of the Assembly. OK, an agonising reappraisal must be threatening Sinn Fein when the outside experts come out of the woodwork. Dan Keenan of the Irish Times reports on the sayings of a body imposingly called “The truth and reconciliation commission of Britain and Ireland,” which informs us

There is a perception among nationalist supporters that Sinn Féin and its leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness have become too wedded to the peace process and have become too embedded in the powersharing structures with the unionists at Stormont.

Keenan backs this up with reports of ambitious claims from Brian Leeson, Éirígí national chairman, that since the Belfast Agreement there has been “a massive realignment within Irish republicanism”.

“In real terms this means that thousands of republican activists have transferred their allegiance from Sinn Féin to other republican organisations, such as Éirígí. A proven track record of political campaigning, combined with an unambiguous socialist republican platform, has enabled Éirígí to attract large numbers of existing left-wing republicans.

Before we all jump to conclusions, we could do with a bit more evidence, some analysis and may be a poll or two from dare I suggest it, the BBC and/or the Belfast Telegraph. About the voters, remember them? Such evidence as we have from the extensive Life and Times surveys ( 2008’s is recently out) shows impressively calm and steady political attitudes.

However as everybody else is doing it I thought I’d fly my own kite. Out of the perceived turmoil inside the DUP and Sinn Fein camps, there are opportunities for the centrist parties. The Ulster Unionists could receive serious medium-term boosts if it really is true that Labour are planning to hold a referendum on the Alternative Vote system (AV) system on the same day as the general election. Under AV, the successful candidate must win 50% of the total vote. In general elections the unionist-nationalist designations don’t apply , remember. Cross community options increase where:

an MP has previously been elected on a minority vote
serious splits develop inside each sectarian camp
and/or the sectarian balance in the constituency is fairly narrow.

In these cases, the chances are that cross community transfers could seriously affect the result. Among clear targets for transfer pacts between the pro-Executive UUP and the SDLP are South Down, West Tyrone, Upper Bann and even Fermanagh South Tyrone. The DUP would again denied victory in South Belfast . In these scenarios, we have to assume Éirígí becomes a political party or at least runs a strong boycott campaign and the TUV expands. Alternatively, voters could strongly back the DUP and Sinn Fein and leave their fringe challengers in the wlderness. Both are purely reactionary reflexes and have nothing positive to offer. Either way, the Assembly system should survive the threats comfortably enough. if cool heads prevail.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London

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