By Jim Gibney (for Irish News)
Republicans have faced and taken many difficult decisions over the years of the peace and political processes.
These decisions were taken to strengthen the republican struggle and to bring a united Ireland closer.
They were not without risk.
In the midst of such decision taking, it is sometimes difficult to see the benefits of the decision.
The benefits are usually more obvious in hindsight.
The republican community and nationalists who vote Sinn Fein in South Belfast are experiencing one such moment.
The decision to withdraw Alex Maskey from the Westminster election was not an easy one to make for a number of reasons.
Firstly, Alex Maskey - who has given brave and outstanding leadership over many years - has worked for over a decade building Sinn Fein’s electoral base in the area.
That electorate want to vote for him and now feel they have no one they can vote for.
Alasdair McDonnell of the SDLP has a long and offensive record against republicans in the south of the city.
For many re publicans it is hard to divine Mr McDonnell’s worth as a nationalist representative.
It will be difficult for them to vote for him not only because of his anti-republican history but because of his hostile attitude to Sinn Fein’s decision to withdraw, leaving him as the only nationalist candidate who can win the seat - thereby almost guaranteeing his reelection.
But vote for him republicans must because whatever reservations they have about Mr McDonnell’s nationalist credentials the reality is it is better for nationalists and the objective of a united Ireland to have him elected than have a unionist elected.
If I lived in South Belfast I would vote for Alasdair McDonnell.
Republicans and nationalists who vote for Mr McDonnell are basically lending the SDLP their vote for this election.
The next election will be next year for the assembly and Alex Maskey MLA will be contesting it to hold onto his seat.
Sinn Fein voters in South Belfast will be able to cast their vote for Alex then.
Sinn Fein voters have been involved in tactical voting of this kind many times over the years as indeed have SDLP voters.
Bobby Sands and Owen Carron were elected by SDLP voters; as were Martin McGuinness, Pat Doherty, Conor Murphy and Michelle Gildernew.
Seamus Mallon was elected by Sinn Fein voters as were Eddie McGrady and Alasdair McDonnell at the last Westminster election.
And of course the UDA unseated Gerry Adams when they voted for the SDLP’s Joe Hendron.
So tactical voting is part of the electoral landscape of the six counties and when done for progressive reasons it strengthens the nationalist democratic forces for progress and weakens the undemocratic forces of unionism.
And that is the context in which the decision to withdraw Alex Maskey should be judged.
This gesture by Sinn Fein could free up SDLP voters in Fermanagh and South Tyrone to vote for Michelle Gildernew and help hold onto that historic seat for nationalists.
It could also help motivate SDLP voters in North Belfast to vote for Gerry Kelly.
I have been on the campaign trail in north Belfast and the nationalist electorate there are just beginning to realise what is within their grasp - that Gerry Kelly can beat Nigel Dodds.
Mr Kelly’s election would help transform the politics of Belfast where he could be one of three nationalist MPs out of fo ur constituencies.
That would be a highly significant development in Belfast - a city unionist parties consider to be the ‘unionist’ capital of ‘Northern Ireland’.
If the nationalist electorate tap into the thinking behind the withdrawal of Alex Maskey and vote accordingly then they will hold half of the Westminster seats: nine out of 18 on the May 7.
The polls open on May 6 - the day after the 29th anniversary of the death of Bobby Sands MP.
It would be a remarkable and stunning victory if Michelle Gildernew was to hold Fermanagh and South Tyrone and Gerry Kelly took North Belfast.
Then Sinn Fein voters in South Belfast may well feel that electing AIasdair McDonnell was not so bad after all.