The move towards a DUP-UUP pact for the Westminster has already begun and, depending on how far the two parties are willing to go and the absence of any other pacts this could be a good election for unionism in terms of the total number of MPs returned.
A successful unionist pact could deliver as many as 11 out of the 18 seats, their best joint return in 20 years. It could also see the return of 3 Unionist MPs in Belfast for the first time since Nigel Dodds, Peter Robinson and Martin Smyth topped their respective polls in 2001.
As the DUP election leaflets already indicate they intend to make this election about ‘the Union’ and stopping Sinn Féin. What the number one issue for the Remain parties should be is Brexit and the need for Special Status for the north. This is the Brexit election in the same way that the genesis of the Assembly poll was RHI and Arlene Foster.
All of Sinn Féin’s current seats are safe by a country mile. All of the SDLP’s 3 MPs are precarious by comparison, especially in South Belfast.
The SDLP need a pact much more than Sinn Féin do and Colum Eastwood has wisely chosen not to shoot down the prospect of entering an anti-Brexit arrangement with other parties.
If the Unionist parties agree to run a single candidate in South Belfast, potentially Mike Nesbitt, they will romp home in a crowded field. To defeat a united unionist challenger the SDLP will need both Sinn Féin and the Greens to stand aside in a constituency in which both parties have seen significant growth in recent years. A big enough ask.
That is not outside the realms of possibility. Nor is a magnanimous gesture from all 3 parties in deciding to sit out East Belfast this time round in what is for all intents and purposes a two horse race between the DUP and Alliance.
The joint leaders of the Green Party’s sister party in England were straight out of the traps in calling for a pragmatic approach to the snap election. In a letter to Labour and the Lib Dems they said :
“We’d like to meet to explore the best options for beating the Tories in June. We understand that, in the immediate run up to an election, signalling a willingness to work with other parties might be difficult but we hope you’ll agree that the times we are living in require leaders to be courageous and visionary, to actively build a more positive politics,”
So what Steven Agnew has done this week is no different than what Caroline Lucas has been calling for across the pond. Whether anything of substance emerges from these engagements is anyone’s guess. And if the SDLP, Alliance and Sinn Féin were to benefit from a smaller field in South Belfast, East Belfast and Fermanagh/South Tyrone respectively whats in it for the Greens? As it stands, with the withdrawal of the UUP, Nigel Dodds is home in a boat in North Belfast. Might the Greens insist on having a strong input into the choosing of an Independent candidate to put in a serious challenge to Dodds? Might the other parties see this as more than they are entitled to given their lower support levels?
What all the parties should remember is this. The DUP will use a United Unionist victory in this election to inject momentum and confidence into their party again and help them towards a post-RHI recovery. For those who can clearly see the impact that Brexit will have on the north it is a time for pragmatism not selfish party politics.
This post is mostly speculative. However a majority victory for the Brexiteers here in the north is fast becoming a reality unless the other parties make some tough decisions.