Arithmetic is helping to change the SDLP’s opinion of pacts

There are many expressing surprise at the fact that, for the first time, the SDLP appear to be open to the idea of an electoral pact with Sinn Fein.

In the not too distant past, such a development would have been considered unthinkable. A core plank of SDLP policy was to ensure the blue water distancing the party from Sinn Fein remained clearly visible. In both of the previous Westminster elections, (here for 2010 and here for 2015) the SDLP has confidently and very publicly spurned Sinn Fein’s efforts to forge a Nationalist counter-pact in response to unionist maneouvrings in key marginal constituencies.

But that was then, and this is now.

Post-March, everything has changed.

The Nationalist Surge indicated that the broader nationalist electorate wanted their political parties to be sharper and harder.

Sinn Fein have taken this message on board, which is why we are unlikely to see a return to devolved government this side of the outstanding aspects of previous agreements being fully delivered upon.

The SDLP’s changing attitude to the prospect of an election pact with Sinn Fein, albeit packaged in an anti-Brexit wrapping, suggests that Colum Eastwood is beginning to understand the message from nationalists too.

The new arithmetic within nationalism post-March will doubtlessly have helped concentrate minds within the SDLP, and that has led to the earliest sign of public friction amongst senior party figures to date.

For the first time ever in March, Sinn Fein emerged as the largest nationalist party in the two SDLP heartland constituencies of South Down and Foyle.

In South Belfast, the SDLP continued its steady decline, with party share sapping to just 19.4%, down 0.6% on 2016. Sinn Fein’s vote in the constituency jumped some 3.5% to 17.7%, meaning just 3% points now separates the four lead parties in the constituency (DUP, SDLP, SF and Alliance.)

The SDLP vote in South Belfast has been in freefall since 2010, when Alasdair McDonnell capitalised on Sinn Fein not standing to comfortably take the seat with 41% of the vote. When Sinn Fein decided to run in 2015, McDonnell barely clung on to the seat, claiming just 24.5% of the vote and winning with the lowest ever share of the overall vote at a Westminster constituency level.

All of which means that, in the event of a unity Unionist candidate running, the SDLP will almost certainly lose this seat unless Sinn Fein stand aside.

The arithmetic gets worse for the SDLP in South Down.

In March’s Assembly election, Sinn Fein established a massive lead over the SDLP, winning some 19,083 votes compared to the SDLP’s 12,433 votes. In a constituency where the republican party historically experienced difficulties in finding candidates who could connect with the local electorate, the party has finally found a winning ticket in the pairing of Chris Hazzard and Sinead Ennis. Hazzard’s high profile Assembly and Executive role appears to have paid dividends for the party, and in the event of him being nominated, it would take an unprecedented level of tactical voting from unionists to deny him the seat for Sinn Fein (and even that may prove in vain.)

Hence Margaret Ritchie’s instinctive rebuttal of the very notion of an electoral pact with Sinn Fein.

However, the SDLP Leader will know that Sinn Fein also established a significant lead over his party in Foyle in March (16,350 votes to 14,188.) Whilst Eastwood may have reason to be more confident about Mark Durkan’s ability to attract sufficient support to overturn Sinn Fein’s lead, he will know that the nationalist mood at present is one that could punish the SDLP for being seen to gift a number of seats to unionists by spurning an electoral pact, potentially leaving the SDLP with no representation at Westminster level.



  • GS

    The GFA clause was so vague about causes for a Border Poll. It provides a lot of flexibility, is 1) majority of WM seats needed 2) majority of Assemly seats 3) more than 50% of first pref votes in either . Apologies for going off piste

  • Brendan Heading

    Better yet. Take Mark Durkan and Margaret Ritchie as an example. Imagine you’re giving a pitch to an undecided nationalist voter in South Down and Foyle on their behalf. The undecided voter asks what have they done in the HOC in the past few years. What is it you tell them?

    Ciaran, I can think of nothing that Sinn Féin representatives have delivered through their participation in the Assembly for 12 years. Nonetheless, they do not abstain.

  • Mark Petticrew

    To be fair to Mike Nesbitt, he foresaw the problems that would arise from Brexit; saying that Irish nationalism had been “reawakened” as a result of the vote for Brexit. However, this perspective evidently wasn’t shared by most unionists; most of whom having voted for the very source of the reawakening.

    Nelson McCausland’s performance on Nolan LIVE back in February characterised those unionist Brexiteers who inadvertently took a path which has put the union they hold so dear in a more precarious state than it was pre-Brexit, saying the following about a potential hard border:

    I wouldn’t care what sort of situation I’d face as long as I’m out of Europe .. we’re free now.

    Meanwhile, Sinn Féin have seized an opportunity laid bare for them to go on a Brexit offensive. As Gerry Adams said in a VICE interview a few days after the June referendum:

    .. never waste a crisis, never waste a difficulty.

  • the Moor

    I think you’ll find that the legislative apparatus of the welfare state (and welfare capitalism) in Britain enjoyed bipartisan support throughout the period of the ‘long boom’ years (aka ‘the postwar consensus’ or ‘butskellism’) which is to say up until the OPEC crisis of 1973.

  • Macca

    That would be disastrous as, to the electorate and media in Britain, Sinn Fein are evil personified. It would be very easy for the Daily Mail et al to go to town on Nicola Sturgeon by making her and her party out to be friends of “terrorists”. The SNP cannot afford the association.

  • johnny lately

    Que Sera, Sera

  • Karl

    30 years. 3 Home Rule Bills and even with the commitment, we still didnt get it.
    Westminster – not delivering since 1801

  • Hugh Davison

    When was social democracy voted through? Was that after the fall of Stormont? As for the welfare state, higher education: fiercely resisted by the local junta.

  • Barneyt

    Wasn’t the first free state formed in 1921 on an all Ireland basis with the 26 freestate taking form in 1922. NI formally took hold in 1927 was it not? 90 years this year. Then democracy as we know it today… 1971? Bit late on that. Do you really think NI contribution to the welfare state and NHS formation was contrubutive? I’m not sure we are that significant.

  • Barneyt

    Aren’t we talking about different entry criteria however. I don’t believe any demonstrative support for the monarchy is a local requirement..,. Whereas in Westminster it’s bare nipple time , funny handshakes, doth cap and humble yourself on your knees as a British subject? Yes me lady.

  • Barneyt

    It’s a risk for SF hooking up with a party who have not shown tolerance and progressiveness when it comes to women’s rights and marriage equality. The SDLP were late coming to the table on the latter and have shut the door on the former.

  • Barneyt

    If some form of words can be agreed that respected institutional diversity and did not bring about a collapse of integrity then they should consider it. But we know what would happen if SF took their seats. It would offer a distraction and any attempt to address a real issue would gain a dismissive response initially and thereafter all rhetoric would focus on the SF past and not where they are now, nor the matter in hand. It would be endakennyesque threefold.

    I can imagine it.. “I’m glad to see the honourable gentleman take his seat in this parliament and show his loyalty to our queen and monarchy and finally respect British jurisdiction in Northern Ireland. I am also pleased to see him raise matters on our Heath service. It’s a shame he didn’t take the same approach when looking down the barrel of a gun pointed at our loyal troops performing the queens work, which incidentally they now openly support, as proven by their participation”

  • Croiteir

    How do you know Gavin?

  • Croiteir

    Or maybe she’s just doing what she thinks is right for her?

  • Western Person

    I suppose the likes of McElduff and Ó Donnghaile don’t do petty attacks?

  • the Moor

    The state of NI was formalised in 1922 on the basis of the 1921 division following the war of independence. The Border Commission in which Collins apparently placed great store was wound-up in 1925 having failed to effect any change to the 1921 border. NI is a peripheral region of the UK to be sure. My point is only that MPs – there are 650 in the UK parliament in total – as legislators participating in the business of any parliament as a matter of course contribute to the passage of whatever legislation is passed during said parliament. In the run of things, the contribution/attendance of NI MPs is neither remarkable or unusually indolent.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Coming from one of the most arithmetic people in the SDLP, I see no arithmetic purpose of entering a pact, nevermind a Sinn Féin pact.

  • Kevin Breslin

    I’m waiting for someone to explain to me the purpose of sectarian pacts other than to annoy the other side.

    They’re defensive for unionists, but they are suicide for nationalism, particularly inclusive nationalism.

  • Donal

    Contentious idea: We have now reached the stage of Joint Authority. Recall UK and ROI Govts are guarantors for the GFA. (hence half way there!). Going forward the option for an elected MP should be for he/she to either sit in Westminister or Dail Eireann.
    e.g South Down elected MP/TD can take TD Salary and attend in Dublin, as per Monaghan/Donegal/Cavan TDs or any other part of Ireland. Whilst North Down elected MP (presently Lady Silvia) can opt/continue to attend Westminster.
    All optional. I think the pay is better in Dublin and no aeroplane required!

    This should prove attractive Unionists; They can re-unite with fellow Presb/Anglian people from Monaghan/Cavan/Donegal e.g (Humphries TD /Crawford TD etc) and have more say in a 15% block vote within Ireland, rather than the derisory 1.4% UK representation.
    Surely it is time for Unionists to assert themselves within Ireland and redress the injustice done to their Ulster co-religious during partition.
    Question: what is the difference between the Fosters/Elliotts of Fermanagh and Grahams/Crawfords/Irwins of Cavan/Donegal?

  • AntrimGael

    I think they are often a reaction to the nonsense and point scoring the SDLP constantly comes out with in the media. Instead of representing their constituency and electorate the raison d’être of the SDLP is to attack, attack, attack Sinn Fein. Nationalists are fed up and weary of it.

  • Skibo

    I believe the question was, what were the positive points from sitting in the HOC. The setting up of a sectarian state could hardly be considered as positive.

  • Skibo

    Brendan what about the extension of the M1 and now the extension of the M22? The bypass round Magherafelt. The present situation in the SFP.
    There are numerous examples of every day politics happening at Stormont but they have become just the acceptable workings of the assembly.
    Interestingly enough, people said before that Stormont was doing nothing and now that it is in limbo, the same people are saying get it sorted and make it work again.

  • Skibo

    Was it Gerry Fitt or was it Frank McGuigan?

  • Skibo

    Abstentionism does not mean lack of representation. SF works for all the people. They go to Westminster, they have offices in Westminster. They represent the people.
    What they do not do is take their seats or their salaries.

  • Skibo

    GS I challenge your analysis. As I see it when the Nationalist vote surpasses to Unionist vote there should be a border poll.

  • Skibo

    TE if you take a quick look through the bangordub site you will notice that even with the resurrection of the Nationalist vote, they still fall behind the turnouts of the Unionist vote. If anything there are more nationalists still to come out other than West Belfast and Foyle.
    North Belfast seems to have woken the Nationalist spirit. This may have implication for Mr Dodds but I fear it is two years too early.

  • Brendan Heading

    They cannot possibly represent people who want their voice heard in Parliament.

  • Brendan Heading


    Brendan what about the extension of the M1 and now the extension of the M22? The bypass round Magherafelt. The present situation in the SFP.
    There are numerous examples of every day politics happening at Stormont but they have become just the acceptable workings of the assembly.

    If you believe that the successful delivery of infrastructure projects is a justification for non-abstention in the body that appointed the government which delivered those projects, then there should be no problem attending the House of Commons which under direct rule delivered a large number of road and motorway projects.

    Interestingly enough, people said before that Stormont was doing nothing and now that it is in limbo, the same people are saying get it sorted and make it work again.

    Alliance have been saying “get it sorted and make it work again” for most of the past 12 years.

  • Brendan Heading

    Given their public comments on this matter in recent years I doubt that dropping the oath of allegiance would end SF’s abstention policy.

  • Brendan Heading

    If SF voters can get around the IRA killing 2000 people I’m sure they can get around lending a vote to the SDLP.

  • Skibo

    Being heard at parliament and being heard in parliament are two different things. All that the second means is you sit on big fancy seats and listen to a load of guff. You can vote on legislation but you will find that while your vote will be counted, it will not count as required to make a difference.

  • Skibo

    Brendan the actions of Westminster relate to the infrastructure in England and Wales. All NI infrastructure has been addressed within Stormont. It does not require sitting at the HOC to make sure that infrastructure in NI is directed to the areas of need.
    What did Naomi do when she was there? How did her vote count for the betterment of the people of the North? Could her vote have stopped something like say the welfare cuts being imposed in the North?

  • GS

    So for example if Nationalist parties got 45%, Unionist 43% and Others 12% but Unionists got more seats?

    I don’t think that would be enough to cause a poll to be called…

  • Skibo

    GS of course it would as a border poll would be decided by votes and not seats in either Westminster or Stormont.

  • GS

    I think you’re wrong here Skibo. You genuinely think the first time the Nationalist vote exceeds the Unionist vote a Border Pool will be called?

    I don’t believe that, the UK Govt will cite polls etc

    I think it won’t happen until the Nationalist vote hits 50% or a majority in Westminister or Assembly..

  • Croiteir

    Why has no one questioned why Ritchie makes party policy by public declaration? Surely she needs a slap on the wrist for usurping the leaders role

  • Croiteir

    Still flogging that horse – not an issue in nationalism

  • Skibo

    The only sure indication that the union with GB is safe is the Unionist vote. Anything else is debatable. Even that will be under much pressure within the next cycle of elections. Do they cut and agree better conditions within a UI from a relative position of strength or do they slug it on like Napoleon trying to fight a Russian winter?
    Those who vote for other are stating that they are neutral on the issue of the constitution.
    Another point in time which will be critical is when the Nationalist percentage of the total electorate is at 50%. From a simple extrapolation, nationalist vote follows the Catholic population very closely. Bangordub have made a stab at when this will happen and have come up with 2023. That is only five years away. Can we keep the Nationalist electorate energised for five years? Can we convince hard line Republicans that voting within a British political mandate will be worth the loss of face to achieve the reunification of Ireland?