Lessons from North Belfast: “every abstentionist MP is another half-a-seat towards a Conservative majority”

Fair play to Newton Emerson, he knows how to lay welts (as my old da used to say) on everyone. He chides the SDLP for standing down for the “half vote” SF candidate in North Belfast, but in doing so he makes an important point:

The SDLP ran a no-profile so-called “paper” candidate in North Belfast in 2017, giving Sinn Féin a free run without making it official. On Sunday night, the SDLP formally withdrew from the constituency, its first such act anywhere since in four decades.

The party’s claim of doing so to oppose Johnson’s Brexit is nonsense. Dodds is opposed to Johnson’s deal and in Westminster arithmetic, every abstentionist MP is another half-a-seat towards a Conservative majority. [Emphasis added]

Boris Johnson has slammed the door on the sort of Brexit the DUP and their voters can live with. The only route open to them is not so much a Labour win but a debilitating loss for Boris Johnson.

The DUP know what too many commentators in Northern Ireland don’t yet seem to have twigged with regard to the SDLP: ie, that relevance matters. The SDLP’s only way back to Westminster is to convince the nationalist heartland taking all these seats matters.

In addition, the SDLP’s defection from North Belfast (paralleling the UUP’s historic disappearance) will feed (as noted by Eoghan Harris) a Unionist consolidation that could see Dodds make through the narrowing sectarian gap.

Panning the camera further out Newton makes a much more senior point about the “Single Great Problem” this dissection into tribes brings:

…the prospect of a new tripartite model of politics (DUP/SF/Alliance) must be set against the uncompromising aggression witnessed in North Belfast, with the DUP benefiting from thuggery and Sinn Féin still taunting the IRA’s victims.

These two ruthless blocs will never permit the centre-ground to hold any meaningful balance of power. Given the chance they will crush it with agitation and non-cooperation, as they did after the Belfast Agreement, when they were the minor parties of unionism and nationalism.

That puts negotiations to a future Stormont into perspective. Whatever they agree, North Belfast is what you get if these two go back into the unassailable positions they were in before it collapsed. As I noted back in 2012, something bigger has to change.

Photo by K. Mitch Hodge is licensed under CC0