One sign of changed times is leading commentators such as Alex Kane Tom Kelly and Newton Emerson ranging across newspapers that not so long ago would have stuck to simple uncomplicated messages for well understood and stable readerships. Times have indeed changed for us all.
From my remote position in London however, Alex and Tom are making very heavy weather of the issue of electoral pacts on both sides of the divide. They’re doing so for the best of reasons, because they recoil from bottom line sectarian politics. But this may distance them from the simple imperatives of the parties. And because they live the detail, it may mean missing obvious points and bigger issues.
Call it sectarian calculation if you will, but voter numbers matter as much as ever. March’s SF surge against the background of gradual demographic change to a Catholic majority only increases the compulsion of basic realities.
For Westminster elections in particular it’s all perfectly simple, when it’s sudden death, first- past -the post. Voter numbers are what matters above all. The number of seats – 18 – is paltry and of marginal importance in the balance of power in Westminster. Power sharing is not operative here. Basic calculations are quite simple in most places even if finding the formulae to create the desired results can be a very different matter.
Having spent years trying to identify better paths to cooperation I haven’t given up the ghost. One view says elections are basically divisive. Another accepts the reality that if electoral pacts make parties feel more secure about winning and fatalistic about losing or not fighting this one , so much the better. And too many elections diminishes the impact of each one. So long as they don’t impale themselves on hooks during the campaign they can then turn to compromise afterwards.
Where in these calculations stands Colum Eastwood’s anti-Brexit pact proposal? It’s open to principled objection as it includes Sinn Fein who do not take their seats in Westminster where the main action is played out. As an electoral strategy it’s otherwise a modest device to take the bad look of giving SF a clear run in FST in exchange for…. what exactly? An SDLP leading role in South Belfast to retain the seat ( Try a new candidate!) Giving Naomi a real chance in East Belfast and saying thank you to unionists for standing aside in no hoper constituencies? Ok if it’s not sectarian, you can’t deny it plays to communal realities. Of course it will be spurned where it would be counterproductive like the Nesbitt message. But it does put down a marker for better politics later.
Policy is for whimps when electoral struggle is in play. But the real hope for Eastwood’s stance comes later as a means to encouraging a cross community and cross border approach to Brexit.
Minds will be concentrated differently after 9 June. Yet again the NIO has set another tight deadline. For them the legal option of an election seems to be a substitute for thought. The GFA seemed to envisage another election breaking a deadlock rather than entrenching it.
What the governments have to agree on is the conditions for another election in preference to creeping direct rule; and whether the circumstances for an election ratify a pending deal or admit failure. In either case that’s when the positioning of the parties could get really interesting.
Tom and Alex have turned over the Brexit stone and put it down sharply after scratching their heads. If they can tear themselves away from the campaign they might try to help build a platform for a grown up approach when the latest electoral dust has settled.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London