Both Unionist parties have already signalled their willingness to enter talks to agree the terms for an expected electoral pact, but expect speculation to develop about the prospect of a Brexit pact for the non-unionist parties.
Already, Sinn Fein’s Declan Kearney and John O’Dowd have signalled support for such a position, and intriguingly the SDLP Foyle MP, Mark Durkan, did not close the door on such a proposal on The Nolan Show this morning (under interrogation from fellow commentator, David Gordon!)
The one party most likely to promote this is Sinn Fein, for obvious reasons.
The primary objectives for Sinn Fein will be to maintain the political and electoral momentum from this March’s election. The Brexit issue is one that has unnerved nationalists and contributed significantly to motivating nationalists to turn out in numbers not seen for many years- and also contributed towards the Alliance Party’s successful performance in March.
Consequently, ensuring that Brexit remains the pivotal issue for voters, as opposed to merely opinions on the constitutional question, will resonate with the broader nationalist and non-aligned electorates.
In a practical sense, a Brexit pact will be one that Sinn Fein will have to unilaterally flesh out above the heads of the other two parties most likely to benefit from such a deal, namely the SDLP and Alliance, who are likely to instinctively baulk at the prospect of aligning formally with republicans.
Sinn Fein will be confident of retaking the Fermanagh South Tyrone seat lost to Tom Elliott with or without an electoral pact with the SDLP, but taking the unilateral step of standing aside in South Belfast to promote the prospect of an anti-Brexit candidate triumphing ahead of the DUP’s candidate is likely to be well received by SDLP supporters regardless of the predictably dismissive response it receives from some in the SDLP leadership.
Similarly, were Sinn Fein to stand aside in East Belfast in order to bolster the prospects of the Alliance Party reclaiming that seat from the DUP using the same anti-Brexit rationale, it would further put pressure on the DUP, give additional credibility to a campaign to re-elect Naomie Long whilst also ensuring the key campaign theme remains attitudes to Brexit.
Neither party will agree to form an official pact with the republican party, yet that should not discourage Sinn Fein.
In a strategic sense, maximising the anti-Brexit vote and representation in this election is an over-riding priority for both nationalist parties, but particularly for Sinn Fein as the party most defined by its attitude towards Irish unity. Maintaining the momentum from March’s Assembly election will compel the republican leadership to think not just about the selfish party political objective at an individual constituency level in South Belfast, but of the broader impact upon nationalism and the anti-Brexit position of allowing a seat to fall to the DUP. In any event, the fact that the existing parliamentary constituencies are due to be revised ahead of the subsequent Westminster should give confidence to Sinn Fein that a tactical side-step now will not have longer term adverse electoral consequences.
Ironically, such a tactical move would free up party resources and personnel to concentrate in Belfast on maintaining the strong West Belfast showing from March (and the Brexit theme will help keep People Before Profit on the defensive there) whilst also putting additional support behind whoever the party decides to run in North Belfast.