Sinn Fein’s surprise move to bring in John Finucane in North Belfast will have succeeded in adding to the pressure on the leaderships of both nationalist parties to secure some form of understanding that will allow the nationalist and pro-Remain constituencies to feel they can maximise representation at the forthcoming Westminster election in the face of an expected unionist pact across multiple constituencies.
The Nationalist Surge in March’s Assembly election is best understood as a call for the collective leadership of nationalism to think and act in a sharper, more decisive manner, not least in the face of a determined political and electoral pact strategy from unionism.
There is a real sense that, unlike in previous election campaigns, the leadership and grassroots of the SDLP are genuinely contemplating responding to the changing political and electoral landscape in this post-Brexit/ post-Surge environment in a manner that could see the nationalist parties respond to a unionist pact with some form of arrangement which can make potential and probable seat losses into likely gains in at least three key constituencies: North Belfast, South Belfast and Fermanagh-South Tyrone.
In the latter constituency, the SDLP has suffered on account of being perceived by many nationalists as being culpable for allowing Tom Elliott to win the seat in 2015. Richie McPhillips polled less than 10% in March and lost the seat as Sinn Fein swept the nationalist board, claiming three Assembly seats.
It will be an unenviable task for senior party figures to even secure a nomination at this point given that the election narrative of Vote Gildernew or Get Elliott is so widely accepted within nationalism in the constituency. Given that Gildernew retained the seat in 2010 even with an SDLP candidate in the field, it is clear that she can still emerge victorious with or without a potential spoiler candidate being nominated.
In a similar vein, the SDLP know that only their man, Alasdair McDonnell, can realistically prevent a united unionist candidate from winning South Belfast. The problem for the party is that their grip on the constituency has loosened to the point that a failure to secure Mairtin O’Muilleoir’s withdrawal from the contest will effectively hand Alasdair his P45 (and, even in the event of that happening, it is far from certain that McDonnell can motivate a vote to turn out for him on the day.)
Sinn Fein has been the party making the most of the nationalist electoral advance in March, and therefore many within the ranks of the republican leadership will be favourably disposed towards facilitating Alasdair McDonnell (in spite of his record of being fiercely critical of SF) to prevent the likely unionist pact candidate from securing a victory here.
If that wasn’t enough, the nomination of John Finucane in North Belfast will have further galvanised nationalists in a constituency in which the balance of power- in representational terms- shifted decisively in March, with three nationalists elected in the five-seat constituency.
The SDLP’s impressive North Belfast MLA, Nichola Mallon, has been out canvassing for Alasdair McDonnell already (as opposed to for herself), which gives a clear indication as to what the party sees as its primary electoral objective in this campaign.
Mallon will be very conscious that Finucane’s candidacy has transformed North Belfast into a ‘live’ contest for nationalists in a way that wouldn’t have been the case had Sinn Fein ran Gerry Kelly again. His nomination complicates matters for the party, and it could be enough to empower Colum Eastwood to agree some form of understanding with Sinn Fein that cleared the fields in North Belfast and South Belfast to allow for both parties to consolidate and advance on March’s election performance.
That would allow the SDLP to concentrate its limited resources on defending its three seats, knowing that March’s performance has left the party without any safe seats (though Foyle should still be won handily.)
Such a move would likely find favour and reward from a nationalist electorate which voted for a sharper, harder and hungrier leadership only two months ago.
We’ll know if it’s a runner soon enough.