Assembly Election 2016: Time for more Electoral Pacts?

Craig Harrison writes for us about whether the upcoming Assembly election might see some more pacts

With Northern Ireland’s politicos getting increasingly excited about the upcoming Assembly election, talk is eventually going to turn to electoral strategy. While our PR-STV voting system offers its own avenues for attracting votes, one method completely independent of the system is the electoral pact.

Utilised by the DUP and UUP during the 2015 General Election, electoral pacts are a very emotive subject in Northern Ireland.

Indeed, last year’s unionist pact was met with varying degrees of criticism from Stormont’s Nationalist parties. The SDLP’s Alasdair McDonnell called such pacts “cynical political moves” aimed at “pitting one community against another” – while a Sinn Féin spokesperson labelled the unionist pact “sectarian”. (In the interest of balance, it must also be noted that Sinn Féin offered the SDLP a so-called ‘progressive pact’ for the General Election, which the then-party leader Alasdair McDonnell rejected).

However one views electoral pacts, the one struck by the DUP and UUP in 2015 ultimately seemed to work, returning three unionist candidates out of the four targeted Westminster seats.

So what are the prospects for similar deals being offered or struck in the run up to the next Assembly election? In the opinion of this commentator, virtually zero.

Indeed, if either set of parties harboured any intention of engaging in such electoral strategising, this will probably have fallen victim to events during the last months of 2015.

On the unionist side, there has been too much mud slung for the DUP and UUP to kiss and make up. New DUP leader Arlene Foster is probably keen to show how strong she can be at the helm, so cosying up to one of the party’s biggest critics over recent months will probably be the last thing on her mind. When still serving as First Minister, Peter Robinson was also critical of the UUP’s approach to the most recent Stormont crisis, and it’s unlikely that his successor thinks differently.

A pact is also impossible for the Ulster Unionists. When the time comes to fight for votes, they are likely to contrast the DUP’s decision to go back into government with Sinn Féin with what they believe to have been their principled stand against paramilitarism. This simply won’t allow for any pan-unionist agreements.

For Northern Ireland’s nationalist parties, the bridge may also be too wide. Indeed, while Colum Eastwood is an entirely different leader to Dr McDonnell, the period since his rise to the top of the SDLP has arguably been defined as much by nationalist in-fighting as anything else.

For example, after Mr Eastwood criticised the ‘Fresh Start’ deal and the role of Sinn Féin’s negotiators in producing it in the Irish News, the deputy First Minister took to the Belfast Telegraph to berate the “same old lazy SDLP politics”.

In his first speech after being elected, the SDLP’s new leader also emphasised that the party needed to mark itself out as an alternative to the current “failing” Stormont leadership. This election platform is entirely incompatible with an pact with Sinn Féin.

On this reading, the prospects for any electoral pacts before May’s election seem slim. While politics in Northern Ireland has the tendency to throw curveballs that no one expects, the current divisions between the unionist and nationalist parties seem too wide to close. This is arguably something to be welcomed, because in the ever-present climate of instability, fallout, and near collapse, our parties seem to at least agree on one thing: they don’t like each other very much.

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