Could the Tories Save Northern Ireland’s Squeezed Middle?

There are no two ways of looking at last week’s Assembly election results: mission accomplished for Sinn Féin. Manners have been put on Arlene Foster. Foster called the unionist faithful to rally around her to ward off the nationalist crocodile, the bastard child of Papism and the IRA, but in doing so she built a temple to Sobek, the Egyptian croc-headed god of fertility and the army, at which lapsed Catholics turned out in near-record numbers to worship.

It is clear to all that in the process Arlene Foster has damaged unionism. But even though the DUP had a worse Friday than the UUP in relative terms, Mike Nesbitt’s failure to make any headway against the DUP under the most propitious of circumstances, points to the possibility that the Ulster Unionists may end up being sacrificed to keep Sobek at bay.

The next Assembly election is likely to see a very spooked unionist electorate turn out to try and turn back the floodwaters. In the process it is hard to see the Ulster Unionists do anything other than drown.

If the UUP is to have any purpose, it has to offer something other than being Diet DUP (full unionist flavor but with no added Orange). In an Assembly election it is going to be difficult to do that with the shadow of Gerry “Sobek” Adams casting across the border, but there exists a glimmer of hope at Westminster, if Theresa May decides to seek her own mandate before the UK finally does leave the European Union.

A UK-wide general election would be about one thing and one thing only: Brexit, no less in Northern Ireland than anywhere else. It would present an opportunity for the avowedly pro-EU parties (SDLP, Alliance and UUP) to draw a bright line between themselves and the pro-Brexit DUP and the abstentionist Sinn Féin.

The power of Brexit was skillfully used by Sinn Féin to put People Before Profit back in their box, but ironically could be used against them in a UK general election.

If the only thing standing between a very bad Brexit for Northern Ireland passing the House of Commons is half a dozen absentee Sinn Féin MPs, it would certainly serve to focus the minds of nationalist voters when they lift their pencil to mark their X.

Transfer patterns from the Assembly election showed that SDLP, Alliance and the UUP’s voters want to share and shore up the middle ground in Northern Ireland politics.

Sinn Féin’s House of Commons absence and the DUP’s “Brexit come what may” approach have created a platform upon which they could stand together – a pledge to vote against a bad deal for Northern Ireland in the House of Commons if and when the day arises.

Instead of a sectarian voting pact they could offer a positive, proactive voting pact, with the path being cleared by the other two (on the current boundaries) for the SDLP in Foyle, West Tyrone, Newry & Armagh, South Down, West Belfast and South Belfast.

Alliance would get an open run at East Belfast, Lagan Valley, North Down and East Antrim, while the UUP would fly the flag for no Brexit being better than a bad Brexit in East Londonderry, North Antrim, South Antrim, Upper Bann, Strangford and North Belfast (Fermanagh and South Tyrone would probably do its own thing.)

There is a little something there for everyone, which is what makes it a viable proposition. And what might appear like a tough sell to nationalists, could easily and clearly be framed as a one-off recognition that in the next Westminster parliament there would not be a vote on the Irish border, but there would be a vote on Brexit.

The move might, though, be a harder sell to the Ulster Unionists, but would be a litmus test of whether the party has the stomach to save itself, or whether it is too sclerotic to reach for the one life-line that remains within reach. Right now it is in Theresa May’s hands: but if she throws, will they grab it, or will they allow the DUP to feed them to the crocodiles?

Chris Connolly is originally from Ballymena. He currently lives in New York where he works for the Legal Aid Society.

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