By Jim Gibney (for Irish News)
The withdrawal of Sinn Fein from South Belfast almost certainly guarantees the seat for the SDLP’s Alasdair McDonnell, regardless of the posturing of Margaret Ritchie. The Sinn Fein decision, aimed at maximising nationalist representation, will have a ripple effect across other constituencies - the goodwill gesture encouraging nationalists to use their votes tactically.
The outworking of the peace process has caused deep differences within unionism, even though unionists have managed to agree a pact in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Lady Sylvia Hermon has been given a clear run by the DUP in North Down and the TUV has stood aside in some constituencies.
Initial unionist smugness that this pact, and the intervention of Mr McKinney. would split the nationalist vote and virtually guarantee the election of Rodney Connor, has turned to dismay.
The poor performance by Fearghal McKinney in a television debate last Sunday, all fluff and no substance, on its own significantly damaged his credibility. But the actual statistics present an even more powerful argument. Michelle Gildernew outpolls the SDLP by 11,400 votes, has been a great minister for agriculture and a very active abstentionist MP. Clearly, she is the only nationalist candidate who can win.
If Sinn Fein’s South Belfast gesture does encourage tactical voting, then nationalists could, astonishingly, take three of Belfast’s four seats.
The North Belfast contest has been ‘under the radar’, so to speak, and could cause a major upset to the DUP and unionism. Have any of our political correspondents had a real look at this battle and at the vulnerability of the DUP?
There, the Sinn Fein vote has been on a relentless rise and the party has put every man, woman and I9-year-old on the electoral rolls and registered every overseas student and sick person for a postal or proxy vote.
The candidate, one of two Sinn Fein MLAs for the area (the SDLP has just one), is Gerry Kelly who sits on the executive, advising Martin McGuinness. His recent television debate with Mr McKinney demonstrated a superior grasp of detail on policy and policy implementation. In the 2007 assembly elections in North Belfast Sinn Fein was 5,000 votes in front of the SDLP and Mr Kelly was elected on the first count, his nearest nationalist rival Alban Maginnis on the ninth count.
If you are a gambler, put your money on Mr Kelly, as the taking of this seat could well be the story of the election.
The party leaders of Sinn Fein and the DUP are defending their seats in the West and East of Belfast, Gerry Adams more assuredly than Peter Robinson, if the blogs and twitters are to be believed.
UUP leader Reg Empey’s foray into South Antrim will decide his future. Ms Ritchie is hoping to inherit the mantle of Eddie McGrady in South Down, and TUV leader Jim Allister is out to scuttle the DUP’s involvement in power sharing if he can seize North Antrim, which has been held by a Paisley called lan since 1970.
Sinn Fein is the preferred party of a majority of nationalists, the DUP of a majority of the unionist people. It is healthy to politics that no party has a monopoly and that there are balances and checks. But it would be naive to think the ‘numbers game’ is unimportant.
If, as a result of vote-splitting or diffused voting, a disproportionate number of unionist MPs are elected you can be sure that this will be flaunted to demoralise the nationalist people.
To this day, we are still redressing the injustices of partition. The state we live in is certainly not the ‘Northern Ireland’ state of 1921 or 1969, which humiliated and tried to crush us.
Today, nationalists own this state with all its flaws, have more power than they ever had and are entitled to run every aspect of government. Some unionists cannot cope with the centrality of nationalist and republican involvement.
I can understand their suspicion because, to be frank, as a republican, I view these political structures as being temporary, subject to change and in transition.
However, as a political activist, I respect elections, which democratically empower the young, the old, men and women, opponents, cynics and dissidents, as equals.