Is it excusable for party leaders to castigate political rivals for ‘splitting’ the vote?

What is it about politicians in Northern Ireland that they will not seriously confront racism, bigotry and sectarianism? How can any politician who promotes the notion of ‘a sectarian head count’ in either community convince thinking people that he or she is serious about standing up to sectarianism?

At the heart of the Conservative party’s explanation for aligning with the Ulster Unionist party is the claim that they want to bring ‘normality’ to politics here. Does anyone believe that the Tories’ understanding of normality is based on a sectarian head count? Logically then —Ulster Unionists cannot do electoral pacts with the DUP in South Belfast or in Fermanagh/South Tyrone to keep nationalists from winning either seat..

It is unthinkable and rightly so that any member of the SDLP should suggest that that party should strike a deal with Sinn Fein to stop a Unionist from winning any seat. It was Enoch Powell who proposed a ‘Speaker’s Conference’ to enhance Northern Ireland’s political representation at Westminster.

John Hume and Seamus Mallon were eventually joined by Joe Hendron and Eddie Mc Grady at Westminster. I recall Ulster Unionists challenging Mr. Powell at a party conference in Newcastle on his contention that what he had done was “good” for Northern Ireland. “That’s democracy ” retorted Powell. Powell’s definition of democracy was ‘a poisoned chalice’ as far as some Ulster Unionists were concerned.

I have covered two party conferences in the past month. Did any individual at either conference lead the campaign against sectarianism? Was this subject thematic in speeches at either conference?

Sadly – no..


  • Turgon

    It may sound ridiculous but I do have very considerable sympathy with what you say. It may sound ludicrous but I would like non sectarian politics to work even though it would probably render me without any political party.

    One problem is that our politics are not actually that abnormal in some ways. In many places throughout the world political parties exist on sectarian lines. In the former Yugoslavia that was and is very common. In South Africa there are essentially black and white parties. In Belgium I believe there are parties which function on an essentially sectarian basis..

    Turning to F/ST I know what you mean. However, there is a counter argument: that is that the sitting MP has suggested that a future generation of republicans might have to go back to violence and was elected the first time in part as a result of a polling station being kept open by threats. In addition the sitting MP does not attend the House of Commons and as such one could argue does not fulfil her democratic role.

    In 1997 when Martin Bell stood against Neil Hamilton the Labour party and Lib Dems stood aside.

    When Bobby Sands stood for F/ST the SDLP stood aside.

    I understand what you mean about the CUs standing but there are reasons why a pact here would be reasonable.

    I know it would raise hackles amongst republicans but as I have noted above it would by no means be without precedent.

  • borderline

    Witness ye sluggerites the birth of a new interesting valid point in our ancient struggle.

    This only happens about once a decade, I reckon.

  • United BritishIsles

    “Logically then —-Ulster Unionists cannot do electoral pacts with the DUP in South Belfast or in Fermanagh/South Tyrone to keep nationalists from winning either seat..”

    In Fermanagh and ST the objective would be to keep out Sinn Fein – part of an organisation which murdered Conservative MPs and bombed their party conference. There is nothing sectarian about doing that as it has nothing to do with the religion of the candidate. It has everything to do with Sinn Fein’s recent past which they are still very proud of – shootings, bombings, murder, torture.

    All the parties (C&Us;,SDLP,Alliance,DUP,Labour) should consider pacts in all areas to ensure the defeat of Provisional Sinn Fein.

  • Turgon,

    I think the Belgian parties are split along language lines primarily.

    Regarding Eamon’s point about sectarianism, the main problem of course is that while we all agree it is a problem, it’s themmuns who are at fault.

    The failure of politicians to face up to sectarianism is of course a disgrace. But how can we expect them to do so, when the entire politics of the place depends on tribalism? One need only look at the DUP and PSF binning the Shared Future strategy to see that.

    But there is no point just blaming them. The voters are at fault.

  • Opposition to Sinn Féin isn’t based on sectarianism so much as a legitimate desire to keep them out. I find it a little outrageous that such a political calculation has to be interpreted by the contributor as sectarianism.

    A pact to ensure that people in a constituency actually get representation in Westminster would also in my view be a mitzvah, given that if shinners are elected they don’t get that.

  • dodrade

    Cameron says NI voters should have the chance to vote for the next government, but what use is that in FST when a UCUNF candidate results in another Gildernew victory and 38% of voters there denying the other 62% their right to representation at Westminster?

    I believe there are laws against abstentionism for the Welsh Assembly, it is time for Westminster candiates and their parties to required to pledge to take their seats before being allowed to stand, and to forefit their seats and be banned from Westminster elections for 10 years if they break it.

  • DC

    The ultimate conclusion must be to do away with unionism and nationalism as party-political ideas here, rather than say talk about lesser things such as pacts etc.

    It’s one big pact at the moment.

  • DC

    Turkeys and Christmas Eamonn, I’m afraid. Those vested interests.

    For the SDLP to seem sincere on a shared future it would need to validate this by nominating unionist and nationalist. The reason is clear for doing so, so as to reshape politics here, but the leadership isn’t there in the SDLP to properly fight for it.

    Much the same with Alliance talking about shared future yet opting out of designation altogether whenever they need to opt-in and use the system to carve out a shared identity by nominating unionist and nationalist. However, yet again, that would require leadership as it would spook its core vote who would feel unsure about taking on a nationalist stake. Thus, it would upset the apple cart and to steady that it would require strong leadership and a conviction that such a stance is right.

    Neither party is taking up a proper shared future yet both want to gain credence for being progressive and modern without actually doing the hard work of leading the charge of building up a body politic of shared identities, one that throws roots down in new modern electoral territories.

    You see whether it is Alliance or SDLP there is a real fear of moving away and losing those roots in those more greener areas for the SDLP or the bluey-yellowy ones re Alliance.

    To sum up it’s a case of crikey we might lose a seat or two in the transition period – or risk being wiped out for a time during a rebuild so let’s just not bother with it and instead play pretend shared futures.

  • Sean

    And they say SF is not the dominant party of nIreland

  • Seymour Major


    People within our organisation are getting sick and tired of bloggers and journalists who speculate when there is nothing to speculate about. What irks me is that nobody seems to accept the finality of the terms of the agreement between the Conservatives and the UUP. An agreement over FST and SB is not going to happen. The door on this notion was shut before the ink was dry on the MOU signed between the Conservatives and the UUP.

    “Logically then —-Ulster Unionists cannot do electoral pacts with the DUP in South Belfast or in Fermanagh/South Tyrone to keep nationalists from winning either seat”

    That is stating the obvious isn’t it?

    Michelle Gildernew will regain the FST seat. There are still many Unionists who have not yet grasped that there is a bigger picture. If UCUNF did a deal, it would destroy the integrity of the (long term) drive to represent those from the Catholic community who would be minded to vote conservative.

    Notwithstanding no deal, the SB seat can still be won by UCUNF.

  • Nabidana,

    You’ll note this included South Belfast, which is the deputy leader of the SDLP’s seat. Kind of interferes with your argument.

  • Seymour Major

    There is one other point that needs answering about your post.

    These are words from Sir Reg Empey’s speech at the UUP conference


    The last part of your post is unbalanced in relation to the UUP. Within Sir Reg’s keynote speech are the following words

    “The Ulster Unionist Party wants to offer the electorate of Northern Ireland something more than a continuation of “us-and-them” politics. Something more than a Balkanisation process which will condemn another generation to elections based on sectarian headcounts and pure self-interest.”

    You will appreciate that keynote speeches tend to cover a range of issues but it was interesting to note that Sir Reg did use the signature words
    “a place for all of us”

  • andrew white

    Eamon Mallie attacks unionists…oh the shock of it.

    why would any unionist want someone who wishes to bring the uNion to an end gain a seat at westminster ?

    God Eammon just put on a tricolor and at least be honest about your anti-DUP/Unionist beliefs

  • andrew white

    seymour… Tommy Elliott says there may be deal and reg hasnt smacked him down yet…so much for the ucunf pact

  • Dec

    Opposition to Sinn Féin isn’t based on sectarianism so much as a legitimate desire to keep them out. I find it a little outrageous that such a political calculation has to be interpreted by the contributor as sectarianism.
    A pact to ensure that people in a constituency actually get representation in Westminster would also in my view be a mitzvah, given that if shinners are elected they don’t get that.

    The (non-abstentionist) SDLP hold South Belfast and there’s talk of a Unionist pact. So, you were saying?

  • Mason Powell

    There could be an electoral pact of sorts: a “no-hoper” Conservative UCUNFer in F&ST;, left to his/her own devices while most Unionists vote for an acceptable unity candidate (who need not and probably should not be a member of the DUP). That would allow David Cameron to say he had a candidate in every UK constituency, which maximizing the chance of an MP who would actually represent the constituency in the House of Commons.

  • gtanni trixie

    DC: you couldnt be more wrong about Alliance – it took real leadership to strategically change designation…it saved the Exeuctive. But following that,Alliance gave notice that it would be its policy not to do so again,under any circumstances. The reality is that the dominance of ‘Two traditions’ language/coincept frustrates
    people who aspire to get beyond this concept. “Other” for instance just doesnt do it.

    And for the record, Alliance has always articulated its analysis that denial of sectarianism is part of the problem and names the problem in order to tackle it. This is what I call real leadership,not fence sitting.

  • United BritishIsles

    Seymour Major – “Michelle Gildernew will regain the FST seat … If UCUNF did a deal, it would destroy the integrity of the (long term) drive to represent those from the Catholic community who would be minded to vote conservative.”

    You should at least express some regret about Sinn Fein PIRA regaining the seat. These are the people who murdered Ian Gow MP. The people who murdered Rev Robert Bradford MP. The people who murdered Edgar Graham. The people who murdered five people at the Conservative Party conference and injured many others for life. We are not talking about a normal political party – they still believe they had a right to murder people.

    The Conservative party should offer a challenge to Sinn Fein. If Gildernew says she will take her seat and represent the people of FST, then go ahead and put up a CU candidate. If she once again says she will not take up her seat, the Conservative Party have a duty to ensure the Roman Catholic and Protestant people of FST are represented at Westminster – a deal MUST be done in such a case to ensure the people are represented.

  • aquifer

    The UUP are afflicted with self-loathing and probably Alzheimer’s. The Paisleyites only ever looked after themselves, leaving Trimble & Co to face everybody, including the Americans, alone. Paisleyites wrecked every honest effort by the UUP to govern this place. They are political cannibals.

    Politics is shredding the opposition’s vote and denying them representation because they are unfit to govern.

    It’s about attrition, not supplication.

    A party that does not fight every seat deserves oblivion. A bigot is one thing, and a gutless bigot is something else besides. Sinn Fein have nothing to worry about with ‘Unionists’ like these pantomime villans.

    A party trying to deny representation to people because of their religion does not warrant the term ‘British’.

  • DC

    Grannie Trixie – you can’t opt out of identity and expect to build a shared one in the process.

    I hear what you’re saying, but we will have to agree to disagree in terms of strategy.

  • Notsowiseintheeast

    What is it about politicians in Northern Ireland that they will not seriously confront racism, bigotry and sectarianism?….

    A very very valid point made by Eamonn..I seem to remember him making a similar point during his recent appearance on Nolan. Were is secterianism alive and well…..Ards Borough Council. Check the minutes of every Council meeting when the new mayor is elected and see how many times a Roman catholic has been denied the chain of office.

  • Fellow blogs….let’s look at the reasons for the loss by the UUP of the F & S T seat to Sinn Fein / IRA and South Belfast seat to the SDLP.

    1. F & S.Tyrone – On Ken Maginnis’ retirement, James Cooper was selected by the UUP to contest the seat. Maurice Morrow [Now Lord Morrow] of the DUP was selected to stand against Cooper, as he didn’t like him [basically]. Morrow took cold feet and being anxious not to split the vote and be blamed for the potential loss of the seat, pulled out and instead good Jim Dixon to take up the mantle and he was backed all the way by the DUPes. Gildernew of Sinn Fein/IRA won the seat in 2001 by 53 votes [helped by a few polling stations that stayed open long after 10pm], retaining the seat in the 2005 elections.

    2. In South Belfast on the retirement of the Rev. Martin Smyth, Michael McGimpsey was chosen to replace him….the DUPes put up Jimmy Spratt, splitting the Unionist vote and of course the seat was won by the SDLP.

    In both cases it is seen that the incumbent party in both seats was the UUP. The party spitting the Unionist Party was the DUP. Therefore talk of agreed candidates is nonsense. The DUP shouldn’t be even considering fighting these two seats….they were the cause of the loss of both seats and should even be ashamed to consider fighting them.
    As for Foster, how many more positions does she want…..she can’t even attend Fermanagh Council meetings, having resigned her seat and then stood again as she said at her conference yesterday, ‘to ensure we won the seat’. Obviously Hogg the selected co-optee wasn’t good enough to win a seat on the Council, so they had to send for the lapsed Ulster Unionist hyprocrite, Arlene.

  • heck

    Turgon et al. I do not believe the idea of an agreed unionist canditate in F&ST; is about defeating SF. If that were the case then the easy thing to do would be for both unionist canditates to stand down and both parties campaign for the SDLP canditate.

    Of course they won’t do that because it really is about keeping the fenians out. Just be honest

  • United BritishIsles

    To heck. The Conservatives are open to anyone who supports the Union. They have already picked a number of Roman Catholics for the selection process.

    But I agree with you that they should also think about helping out the SDLP as a one-off in order to remove MPs who don’t take their seats e.g. if the CUs and the DUP didn’t stand in Mid-Ulster, the SDLP would have a very good chance of taking the seat. The same for Newry and Armagh.

    However, that would require vision and leadership.

  • Seymour Major

    No. 14 Andrew White – I am aware of what Tom Elliott said. It is not within his capability to do a deal and he has been made to look foolish.

    No. 18 UBI
    “You should at least express some regret about Sinn Fein PIRA regaining the seat”

    Why? Reality is reality. I write with a cool head. I dont go commenting with my box of Kleenex.

    “the Conservative Party have a duty to ensure the Roman Catholic and Protestant people of FST are represented at Westminster”

    No it does not. Its duty, as it sees it, is that everybody has a say in electing the Government of the UK and it also sees its duty as trying to reach out to voters of all communities which share their values. Once again, you are advocating short termism.

    Just one more thing for Unionists to think about. Should they not be thinking about the long term demographic trend tending to show that Catholics will outnumber Protestants. They already do in the under 27 age groups. Would they not consider the Conservative efforts to seek cross community appeal a bit more important for the long term future of NI than a one-off deal over a coupld of parliamentary seats. Dont Unionists ever stop to think what message these deals send to the Catholic community?

    We are the only party that is making a genuine effort to keep the Union together. The DUP are too selfish and narrow minded to really care about it.

  • The Black Man

    Nordieland is a bigoted place.

    Always has been. Always will be.

    That’s why it was invented and what it was invented for.

    The only consolation perhaps is that Scotland may be even more bigoted.

  • bob wilson

    Seymour’s remarks are throughly sensible.
    The sky will not fall in if SF hold Fand ST. I’m sure Seymour would rather they didnt but we have to have a broader vision.
    This pact nonsense if all about maximising Protestant representation – its sectarian and plays into the hands of SF

  • Henry94

    This is really a problem of the electoral system. In PR nobody has to stand aside because people can vote in order of preference.

    The argument over pacts is usually futile because your enemy is really the party on the same side of the divide. So you want to blame them for splitting the vote but you don’t want a pact because you want to be the biggest party overall and remain competitive in every possible constituency. It’s much ado about nothing and always was.

  • Eamonn very well said. Mind you I’m not sure that any local Party leader (including the leader of the Alliance Party) really wants proper non-sectarian party politics established here. You are correct that the Conservative Party will not agree to demands from UUPers to do sectarian head-counting deals in South Belfast or Fermanagh South Tyrone. The Party is the only true non-sectarian Party organised in Northern Ireland. The deal with the UUP was inspired to take the UUP off the ballot paper. The fact that certain members of the UUP think otherwise is neither here nor there.

  • Henry94:

    This is really a problem of the electoral system. In PR nobody has to stand aside because people can vote in order of preference.

    Which version of PR? And there’s no practical electoral system (even PR) that is completely immune to vote-splitting.

  • The New Insider

    Marty McG

    Re. your view that both F&ST;, and S. Belfast should be UUP seats, as they were the incumbent party. If we followed that logic then the Conservatives shouldn’t challenge Labour in any of their seats in GB, as Labour are the current incumbents in those seats, and have a 100+ seat majority in the House of Commons. As such, we would have a permanent Labour government.

    Plus, are you also saying that the CU’s shouldn’t challenge any of the 9 DUP MP’s in their seats as they are now the incumbents? If we followed this logic then we needn’t have elections at all i.e. just let the incumbent party select a replacement when a vacancy occurs.

    It occurs to me this is the Logic that Hitler followed – After the 1933 election when he got a majority in the Reichstag, he said there was no more need for elections as he and the Nazi party were now the incumbents! (Apologies for such a dramatic analogy!).

  • Harry

    The New Insider,

    The problem with the DUP is not that they challenged the UUP in F&ST; and S Belfast but that they now call on the UUP to make an electoral pact in order to maintain unionist representation when it was they who were the ones who caused the split in the first place. A possible analogy would be UKIP challenging a seat held by the Tories and letting BNP in and then UKIP saying that the Tories and UKIP should have an electoral pact to prevent the BNP from winning the seat.

    Anyway, I hope that the UUP do not agree to pacts in S Belfast and F&ST;. It sends the wrong message about unionism IMO, stating unionists still dislike and distrust nationalist representation. One earlier poster mentioned the increasing Catholic population of N Ireland – and I agree with him – if unionist parties remain parties protecting Protestant interests, we may not be celebrating a 100th anniversary of Northern Ireland. Middle-class Catholic unionists are already getting tired of the DUP/UUP sectarianism – and other Catholics who may be sympathetic towards the union may be put off by the bigotry of unionism. The Tories are offering, I beleive a new unionism in N Ireland – a unionism which is more about pro-union than it is about maintaining the Protestant culture – a unionism that is embracing all communities rather than one protecting the interests of Protestants. I beleive that if the UUP can put this bigotry and sectarian nature behind them, and be fully supportive of the Tory vision – unionism will be much stronger; it’s not about winning unionist seats as it is about winning unionist votes. I certainly would rather see split unionism in S Belfast and F&ST; but greater support for the union as opposed to united unionism and winning both constituencies but at the expense of a fall in the unionist vote. If unionism needs to make electoral pacts to win what used to be safe unionist seats like S Belfast, the unionist parties need to take a good look at themselves and see why unionist support is dwindling – because the Protestant majority is dwindling and a greater number of Protestants, particularly young Protestants, are sick and tired of DUP, TUV (and even UUP) sectarianism and contempt of Catholics.

  • Jim


    Whilst you are right that voting pacts in SB and FST would be a backward step i have some Questions. Could you show me some evidence of these Catholic Unionist Voters in any elections?
    Would these Conservative Catholic’s not be attracted to FF which is organising in the North?

  • The New Insider


    Your point is a fair one i.e. it was the DUP that ‘split first’ so to speak. However, I still think it’s a bit presumptuous to say a particular party sort of ‘owns’ a seat, and therefore should have priority etc.

    In any case, people who want these sort of electoral deals don’t look at the detail of what would almost certainly happen. For example, if a deal was done between the DUP and UUP over say S. Belfast then, dependent on the actual agreed candidate, it’s almost certain that some sort of an independent ‘Traditional Unionist’ would appear on nomination day. This would be enough to split the vote, as it only takes a Unionist candidate in South Belfast to take 3-4,000 votes to allow Alasdair McDonnell to retain the seat.

  • Seymour Major


    Thank you for that question.

    In your question, you use the phrase “Catholic Unionists” In the second, you use the phrase “Catholic Conservatives” There is a difference and to emphasise that point, I would add that there are Conservative Nationalists out there. Many Conservative Catholics currently support the SDLP, although there is some evidence that some of them vote Sinn Fein (at the moment)

    Currently, voters in Northern Ireland vote along a North-South political dimension, rather than a left-right dimension. That is hardly surprising. Northern Ireland’s four largest parties have their dominant ideologies along the North-South axis.

    To answer your question directly, the overwhelming majority of Catholics do not vote for Unionist Parties at the moment. The task for the Conservatives is to bring the election campaigns to Northern Ireland with the emphaisis on policy – not the politics of the flag. When there is a general election, try hard as they will, the Northern Ireland parties do indeed have their own left-right policies but they have never been able to be able to focus the NI electorate into judging the parties on “bread and butter” issues.

    The forthcoming general election will be a new opportunity for Northern Ireland voters to start thinking about things like tax, the economy, defencem, immigration and foreign policy. Whether people agree with the Conservatives or not, they will finally be able to think of their vote as relevant in a National election.

    It is going to take time for people here to be weened off “tribal headcount” politics but I believe we will get Conservative Catholics to vote for us – not in large numbers to begin with — as they start to notice the failure of the parties that they currently support to produce policies which meet their basic ideals.

  • Jim


    We both know that you could vote conservative in Northern Ireland for some time. Back in the 90s there was even talk of a major breakthrough for the party in areas like North Down.

    You are wise to admit that it is long-term project and will probably need the current UUP leadership to have slipped away. Guys like Ringland and Basil dont have the same perceived Orange links compared to Empey and McNarry.

    However if not by the 2011 Assembly elections then certainly the 2015 elections Catholics will IMO have a chance to vote for the Conservative FF party and perhaps even the Irish Labour Party. This would be at the expense of the SDLP. Most of the current SDLP Conservative vote would be well attached to the FF party by the time it takes the old UUP leadership to leave the stage. To summise Seymour if FF had no intention of coming north then i could see the Conservatives taking some votes of the SDLP. However they are in the short to medium term. These two southern parties could also garner votes from Northern Protestants like Mr Bicker. It will be interesting to talk to you again about this in five years to see how it works itself out.


  • The New Insider


    Re. elections – people vote for the quality of the candidate, not policies or parties: Research has shown this to be true. In the forthcoming UK election it will be how people see David Cameron combined with their local Conservative candidate that will determine who they vote for. The latest UK poll shows that Cameron is not that popular in this dept., and that we are heading for a hung parliament.

    Look at the U.S. No-one knew what Barrack Obama’s policies actually were – all he kept talking about was ‘change has come to America’ but he still easily won the election. Incidentally, a lot of people would still say they don’t really know what his policies are!!

  • Henry94


    And there’s no practical electoral system (even PR) that is completely immune to vote-splitting.

    There is a long way from “not completely immune” to completely dominated by. I’m not even advocating PR just pointing out that it is the system rather than sectarianism that makes this such an issue.

    If we had two socialist parties and two free-trade parties you’d get the same arguments. That’s why Britain is dominated by two parties and why the logic is for the north to end up that way too. Either by attrition or merger.