Parties fail to strike deals ahead of Westminster election
Parties fail to strike deals ahead of Westminster election


The first weeks of the Westminster general election campaign in the north of Ireland have been dominated by suggestions of strategic pacts and alliances, which so far have made little headway.

However, the two main unionists parties have advanced some plans to maximise the number of unionist MPs, particularly in Fermanagh/South Tyrone, where Sinn Fein’s Michelle Gildernew will attempt to win back her seat against an agreed unionist candidate, incumbent Tom Elliott of the UUP.

Sinn Fein said that it was interested in forming a “progressive alliance” to fight against a hard Brexit, but the plans suffered a early setback when the Alliance Party ruled itself out of any such electoral pact due to the nationalist influence.

Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry told the BBC that the moves was “in essence a nationalist reaction to a unionist pact”.

Mr Farry expressed concerns that gains made by Sinn Fein arising out of any anti-Brexit electoral pact could be “used” by the party to seek a referendum on Irish unity. The stance is likely to hurt Alliance leader Naomi Long, who has a narrow chance of regaining her former seat in east Belfast from the DUP's Gavin Robinson.

A suggestion for agreed candidates to include the small Green Party also ended on Tuesday, when the Greens said they could not ask voters to support Sinn Fein’s policy of refusing to take their seats in the Westminster parliament. Green leader Steven Agnew also said he “wouldn’t accept” an electoral alliance if he “thought it was some sort of nationalist pact”.

It also said it would not back the SDLP’s pro-life former leader Alasdair McDonnell in South Belfast, another battleground where unionists are considering an agreed candidate. Mr McDonnell is attempting to retake his seat for a fourth time in the predominately unionist constituency, and will also face a challenge from Sinn Fein’s Mairtin O Muilleoir. In the absence of a deal, the DUP Deputy Leader Nigel Dodds, an outspoken supporter of a hard Brexit, is better placed to hold onto his seat in the face of a challenge from Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has conceded that his original idea of an electoral pact to endorse non-aligned candidates were effectively dead. Mr Eastwood said there was little hope for bringing together an ‘anti-Brexit’ coalition when Alliance failed to entertain the idea.

“Without Alliance on board we were always facing an up-hill struggle because if it was going to work we needed to have across-the-board representation,” he said.

Sinn Fein’s John O’Dowd said the SDLP leader’s proposal was “not a credible offer” and that his party wanted a pact with “political party representation” rather than non-aligned candidates.

“We don’t believe that’s an acceptable way forward - it is political parties that will drive forward change in this society,” he said. “We see that as a proposal from Colum to stymie Sinn Fein and bolster the SDLP - that’s not what progressive political alliances should be about.”

Although the Ulster Unionists supported a remain vote in the EU referendum, new leader Robin Swann are continuing talks with the DUP about the possibility of fielding unionist unity candidates. An Orangeman and a traditionalist, Swann has been urged by the anti-Catholic Orange Order to row in behind the DUP in putting forward ‘Unionist Unity’ candidates. His party has already withdrawn from three constituencies in which they had little or no chance of success -- North Belfast, West Belfast and Foyle.

DUP leader Arlene Foster welcomed the UUP move, but stressed her party’s claim on the more contentious East Belfast seat as well. She said: “It is beyond doubt that Nigel Dodds and Gavin Robinson are the standard-bearers for unionism in North and East Belfast respectively.”

However, Mr Swann described that as “a bit arrogant”. Speaking on BBC radio, he said: “I am willing to talk - that attitude is not helpful at this minute in time.”

Mrs Foster later insisted that she was committed to unionist unity. “When I was elected as leader of the DUP, I said I wanted to work to bring about wider unionist co-operation. I believed it was the right approach then and I still believe it is the right approach today,” she said.

In reference to the SDLP and Sinn Fein, Mrs Foster said that while some parties “continue to seek to refight” the Brexit referendum result, the election offered “an opportunity to vote for the Union”.

Meanwhile, People Before Profit West Belfast candidate Gerry Carroll said his party, which supported a Leave vote in the EU referendum, “will not be entering into a pact with any of the big parties”, claiming Sinn Fein and the SDLP were “desperate” for a pact. He confirmed any People Before Profit MPs would take their seats in Westminster where it would oppose the Tory plans for Brexit, but also that it remains opposed to the “undemocratic nature” of the EU.

Sinn Fein’s leader in the North Michelle O’Neill said the failure of parties to agree a progressive alliance to fight the Westminster election could gift seats to pro-Brexit, pro-Tory and anti-equality hardliners.

“I would urge those parties to reconsider. Sinn Fein remains committed to maximising the anti-Brexit vote in this election.”

Nominations for the June 8 election close on Thursday May 11.

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