Mike Nesbitt somewhat overshadowed the UUP Party Conference with his call for a UUP-DUP Pact.
At the DUP Party Conference Alderman Gavin Robinson was unveiled as their candidate for East Belfast in the General Election.
And Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness attempted to derail the SDLP Party Conference with his call for a ‘pro-agreement’ pact with the SDLP which was rejected.
Everyone has their own opinion on the use of political pacts, and within internal political party discourse there is inevitably debate, often heated. While not unique to Northern Ireland, the mere suggestion of electoral pacts dominates the media and political focus, sometimes distracting or detracting from other crises.
After conference season, all eyes now turn to the General Election in May. A regular call come election time is for greater ‘cooperation’ between the unionist parties. Therefore I thought it would be a good topic to cover.
In PR elections like Local Government, Assembly, and Europe presenting the electorate with a range of choice does not preclude the later transfer of votes through elimination or surplus within or across the respective blocs, or to others. Some argue that choice increases turnout, and that the single transferable vote allows the voter’s intention to find expression so long as an intention is expressed down an order of preferences.
In simple plurality however, blocs find imperatives coming to the fore other than presenting electors with a choice of candidate or policies, as in Northern Ireland, a Sinn Fein victory in a Westminster constituency deprives the entire constituency of representation in Parliament.
This is the unionist contention behind electoral pact discussions. That to fulfil a parliamentary role an MP returned at election ought to swear allegiance to the crown, take their seat, and work with government and opposition in the decisions facing the UK and represent constituent interests in Parliament.
In effect, the unionist position is a choice of representation or no representation, and that, in a run-off, is choice enough.
Discussions of pacts arises most frequently when we examine constituencies finely balanced between total nationalist and unionist electorates, with or without Alliance/Independent candidates factoring. North Belfast, Fermanagh and South Tyrone and South Belfast are all marginal seats where all unionists need to cooperate.
The message is clear to unionist parties from their members and supporters – we want to see unity where it is practical and where it will benefit unionism. I agree with that sentiment. I also want Northern Ireland to get to a point in the future where we will not have to consider pacts, where democrats can slug it out in the knowledge the successful candidate will take their place and represent constituents in Westminster and influence the government of the day.
Speculation abounds leading up to the election next year, and much of it concerning what agreement if any the DUP and UUP will reach. A strong DUP view would be to press for uncontested candidature in East and North Belfast, with the anticipated outcome holding North Belfast and taking East. This would be an optimum result for the DUP, but to get there something would need to be offered to the UUP if they were minded to stand aside in either or both constituencies.
In this scenario, what would most likely emerge is the ceding of FST and South Belfast to the UUP, which in my opinion, would result in the UUP potentially gaining neither. Much depends on what the UUP want out of the election and how they see themselves achieving that. I reckon that they would be happy with a gain, any gain, but where might that best come from? Currently, without pacts, they are only really well placed in Upper Bann.
If a UUP decision is based on numbers, much of the outcome of DUP/UUP talks depends on whether the UUP think that a consolidated bloc vote in FST or South Belfast will yield a seat, for if not, then the incentive to enter a pact for pacts sake greatly diminishes and might potentially harm party and candidate votes for upcoming Assembly elections.
If the rationale for electoral pacts is the difference between providing constituents with representation in Parliament or an abstentionist MP taking the seat, the use of independent unionist candidates cannot be overlooked. This of course was the case in FST and Mid-Ulster last time round without success. But if loyalty and the offer of representation are the issues at stake, the matter of individual party interest must be set aside for greater communal ends.
This is perhaps the basis for inter-unionist party talks and contributions ought to be welcomed and encouraged on the basis of wrestling seats away from Irish nationalism and abstentionism. Seats like FST, North and South Belfast are precariously balanced, and coordinated unionist action holds a promise to improve the quality of representation for all constituents in a given area.
Therefore, there needs to be engagement by all unionist parties who are active in the marginal constituencies to identify and back an agreed candidate; this will then have buy in by those parties. If that happens then the unionist vote can be maximised. However, what should be avoided is the imposition of a candidate by any party. That will only reduce buy in, ergo reducing the possibility of maximising unionist turnout.
As much as the unionist electorate wants to see reasonable cooperation between the parties, the bigger parties themselves need to actually engage and not dictate. No one unionist party can claim to speak for the majority of unionism, and it be remiss of me not to remind them of that.
Richard is vice chairman of TUV; and an advisor to Jim Allister MLA.