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.