The anticipated announcement, that an agreed pan-Unionist candidate would be taking the field in Fermanagh South Tyrone, will have new SDLP leader reaching for the medicine cabinet to pop a couple of headache pills this morning. Expect the pressure for a reciprocal joint nationalist candidate to reach fever pitch and, with Sinn Fein’s Michelle Gildernew the sitting MP, it’ll soon be very clear that nationalists will be looking for the withdrawal of the SDLP’s celebrity candidate, Fearghal McKinney, in order to ensure that the entry of the former UTV candidate does not ensure a split vote which will deliver the seat back into unionist hands for the first time since Gildernew claimed the seat in 2001. This was the topic of a piece I had in the Belfast Telegraph earlier this week when I outlined the unenviable options now facing Ms. Ritchie:
Firstly, the party can proceed with the plan to run McKinney regardless of the clamour for a nationalist pact. Though SDLP insiders may like to convince themselves that doing so would be a bold statement of the partys intention to avoid being labelled as simply matching unionisms tribalist dance, in reality such a strategy would likely see the new SDLP candidate deliver a record low vote for the party in the constituency as nationalists at ground level respond in kind to the pan-unionist approach. Worse, in the event of the pan-unionist candidate claiming the seat, McKinneys reputation in the constituency would be tarnished along with that of his new party. A choice of being either humiliated or scorned- not, Im sure, how he imagined things would pan out when he finally agreed to consummate his flirtation with the SDLP.
Secondly, the party can opt for a pact which would give McDonnell and Gildernew a clear run in South Belfast and Fermanagh South Tyrone. Unfortunately for the SDLP, that may salvage the partys reputation in the rural and nationalist heartlands, but the broader coalition which helped elect McDonnell in South Belfast may be irrevocably shaken by this development and, whilst Gildernew would romp home in her patch, the defeated SDLP leadership candidate would be the underdog to return as MP, leaving the party with the short change.
Not quite Hobsons choice, but not far from it. Welcome to political leadership, Margaret Ritchie. Decision time is fast approaching.