An SDLP decision to stand aside in north Belfast as a result of the UUP’s pact with the DUP in the constituency has triggered a reciprocal arrangement with Sinn Féin which now also includes the Green Party.
The SDLP’s move to favour Sinn Féin’s John Finucane comes as the UUP announced it will not be standing in North Belfast to give pro-Brexit extremist Nigel Dodds a free run despite the UUP actually opposing Brexit.
Even with the SDLP out of the race, it will still be a remarkable and historic achievement if Sinn Féin can defeat the DUP deputy leader.
Mr Finucane said the many unionists in North Belfast who had voted against Brexit should now back him as an anti-Brexit MP.
“With the UUP withdrawing from this contest under pressure from loyalist paramilitaries, there is now no unionist candidate representing those who voted to remain in Europe,” he said.
“I pledge that I will stand against the Tory Brexit agenda on behalf of all citizens in north Belfast,” he said.
The SDLP has also chosen not to field candidates in North Down and East Belfast in a bid to maximise the chances of an anti-Brexit candidate being returned in those constituencies.
Although the party insisted the action was not part of a pact, it was soon followed by an announcement from Sinn Féin that it would not be contesting South Belfast or east Belfast, where DUP seats are under threat from the SDLP and Alliance respectively.
Uniquely among parties which oppose Brexit in Ireland or Britain, the Alliance Party has refused to enter into any arrangement, a position that in unlikely to harm the prospects of party leader Naomi Long regaining the seat in East Belfast she previously won in 2010.
The SDLP is still campaigning strongly against Sinn Féin outside Belfast and have said the party’s objective is to “return as many pro-Remain MPs who will take their seats and vote to stop Brexit”. That goal is closer with the news that the SDLP’s Claire Hanna is now the bookies’ favourite to take the seat in south Belfast from the DUP.
The Green Party has also said it will not be contesting any of the four Belfast constituencies in support of the stronger Sinn Féin, the SDLP and Alliance candidates. The unusual arrangements have added to the belief that political change is underway in the north of Ireland, with Brexit raising questions about the long-term usefulness of the union and the viability of the partition of Ireland.
The majority pro-Remain vote in the Six Counties in the 2016 Brexit referendum was followed by the loss just eight months later by the unionist parties of their majority in the north’s assembly to a Remain coalition of Sinn Féin, SDLP, Alliance and the Green Party.
There was also a significant victory in the EU election when two pro-Remain MEPs, Martina Anderson and Naomi Long were elected to one Brexit MEP, Diane Dodds.
Mr Finucane, a former Mayor of Belfast, has appealed to unionists opposed to Brexit to continue the fightback by giving him a vote on December 12.
“There are many unionists in north Belfast who voted against Brexit. These voters are not represented by Nigel Dodds, one of the chief architects of the Tory Brexit,” Mr Finucane said.
“Many unionists are justly concerned about the disastrous impact of Brexit on their families and their businesses and are watching in horror as Nigel Dodds pursues a reckless Brexit.
“With the UUP withdrawing from this contest under pressure from loyalist paramilitaries, there is now no unionist candidate representing those who voted to remain in Europe.
“I pledge that I will stand against the Tory Brexit agenda on behalf of all citizens in north Belfast.
“I am appealing to unionist voters to look at Sinn Féin’s solid record of delivery, ensuring protections for the economy in the north.
“The choice is clear between an Uber-Brexiteer or a candidate who will faithfully represent the views of the majority of people - unionist, nationalist and others - who reject the disaster of Brexit.”
Mary Lou McDonald has also urged Sinn Féin voters to support other anti-Brexit candidates in the constituencies in which the party is not running, the SDLP’s Claire Hanna in South Belfast and Naomi Long in East Belfast.
Outlining Sinn Féin’s decision on Monday afternoon, Ms McDonald said it was “a once-in-a-generation election” with very high stakes.
“People have a fundamental choice to make - to vote for a positive, inclusive future or to turn their backs on that and to back candidates who have been the architects of Brexit and who have acted very, very deliberately against the democratic wishes of people here in the north and more fundamentally against the economic and social interests of citizens who live here.”
She added: “The reality is we are asking people to come out and vote for those pro-Remain candidates. We believe that is the right and progressive thing to do.”
In a historic departure, Ms McDonald also suggested Sinn Féin supporters should vote for a unionist in the form of incumbent anti-Brexit North Down MP Sylvia Hermon, before it emerged that she was not running for re-election.
Ms McDonald said it sat comfortably with her to urge Sinn Féin supporters to vote for a unionist. “Whether you call yourself a unionist or a nationalist, a republican or a loyalist, we actually have many, many interests in common.”
Nationalist contests are taking place place as normal elsewhere, even in Fermanagh-South Tyrone, where the DUP has announced that they won’t be running a candiate in order to support former UUP leader Tom Elliott. The SDLP’s failure to step aside in the constituency potentially jeopardises Sinn Féin’s sitting MP Michelle Gildernew, who holds a majority of only 895 votes.
The SDLP has also confirmed that the party will contest the South Down seat, where Sinn Féin’s Chris Hazzard holds a vulnerable 2,446 majority. In an embarrassment for the SDLP, their former MP for the constituency, Margaret Ritchie, this week took up a seat in Britain’s ‘House of Lords’ in an elaborate induction ceremony, swearing a fresh oath of allegiance to Elizabeth Windsor and her heirs.
Meanwhile, Aontú has announced it will run candidates in at least five Westminster constituencies. Party leader Peadar Tóibín has refused to rule out contesting the key battle-grounds of North Belfast and Fermanagh/South Tyrone.
The party has hopes of making an impact in south Down but its strongest candidate is in the strongly nationalist constituency of Foyle, where Dr Anne McCloskey could potentially alter the political landscape.
Mr Tóibín said he believed that many nationalist voters were fed up by politicians “demanding that Westminster legislate for the North” and were looking for an alternative. “We believe there is a hunger out there for a nationalist/republican party opposing that, one which will stand up for people on bread and butter issues rather than waging culture wars and focusing on identity politics,” he said.