A Fistful of Early Thoughts Ahead of Brexit’s GE17

There’s nothing like the scent of a fresh election in this mid-Spring air to get the pulses racing.

A few early thoughts for Slugger readers as we embark on yet another election odyssey:

  1. This one is all about Brexit, and that suits both of our main parties. For Sinn Fein, it taps into and feeds the energy which created the Nationalist Surge delivering the historic election results in March. Nationalism remains agitated and unnerved by the cocktail of developments from Brexit to RHI, Arlene’s crocodile and McGuinness’ passing, yet simultaneously is re-energised following the March election performance. For the DUP, it moves the discussion squarely onto an issue that appears to align more naturally along the traditional constitutional-sectarian lines than March’s Assembly campaign. Even though there remains many unionists who are unnerved by the potential implications of Brexit, the DUP will hope that the more strident tone of northern nationalism in recent months will have the effect of further galvanising unionists to turn out to bolster the campaign of the largest unionist party. Expect to hear a lot about the less than 1,200 votes that separates the DUP and Sinn Fein.
  2. It is almost certain that there will be a unionist pact, but don’t rule out a Brexit pact – official or unofficial- which could see Sinn Fein once again stand aside in South Belfast (and possibly East Belfast) whilst calling on the SDLP to do the same in Fermanagh South Tyrone.Whether or not the SDLP do take up the offer is, in many ways, irrelevant, if the gesture has the intended effect at the ballot box.
  3. This would suit both nationalist parties quite well as it would likely ensure that the two marginal seats fell to their respective candidates, whilst also keeping the pressure on the DUP in East Belfast, where the ever-impressive Alliance Party leader, Naomi Long, should once again poll very strongly, requiring a unity unionist candidate to see off her challenge. A repeat of Nationalism’s strong showing in Fermanagh South Tyrone in March would almost certainly see a Sinn Fein candidate returned at the expense of the UUP’s Tom Elliott. The battle in South Belfast is intriguing due to a number of reasons: the SDLP’s vote share in the constituency has been withering in recent elections. However, in spite of the DUP returning with the highest % share of the vote for a party in the constituency in March, the combined vote share of the two unionist parties was less than 30%. Whilst the local Sinn Fein organisation may point to their candidate’s strong showing in March as a reason not to stand aside, the party leadership is likely to view a loss of the seat to unionism as a more considerable setback than merely halting the forward progress of the party in the constituency at this time. Alliance would likely point to their modest vote share increase as reason to be optimistic that their candidate could slip through the middle and claim this seat.
  4. Theresa May’s volte face over an early election is likely to pay off handsomely for her, given the relative poll showings of the Conservative and Labour Parties. Ironically, success for May will be measured in how much additional elbow room she creates in terms of the party’s overall majority in the Commons, a development that will significantly diminish the influence of the DUP within the Commons. That could help create the conditions within which a British Government felt able to take the steps needed over outstanding issues like an Irish Language Act in order to allow for devolution to be returned in the months to follow.
  5. For the first time ever, Sinn Fein face into an election having supplanted the SDLP as the largest political party in the two SDLP heartland constituencies of Foyle and South Down. However, translating that into successful campaigns ousting the two SDLP MPs is a much more daunting task than merely outpolling the smaller nationalist party at the Assembly election. Sinn Fein will know that the SDLP candidates will be boosted by tactical voting by unionists, meaning that the Sinn Fein candidates will be required to significantly increase their vote share amongst nationalists to stand a chance of emerging triumphant. That will in all likelihood require the republican party taking yet more steps along its transition journey and selecting an atypical Sinn Fein candidate in Foyle capable of connecting across the broad nationalist electorate (Chris Hazzard could do the trick in South Down, but the party will have to decide if it can afford to lose one of its better performers from the Assembly and Executive.)