SDLP leader Colum Eastwood may be at risk of falling into a Sinn Fein “trap” if he agrees to the idea of an electoral pact, says a recently retired party veteran.
Alban Maginness said even though Mr Eastwood has declared he is only considering such a deal in order to unite anti-Brexit parties, the issue of the EU could simply end up being “camouflage” for what would really be a “sectarian” pact between the two big pro-united Ireland parties.
Meanwhile on Thursday, when asked about the ethics of linking up with Sinn Fein given its extremely bloody past, two SDLP stalwarts pointed out that the DUP has governed alongside it for years (as have other parties).
The story began on Wednesday when Mr Eastwood told reporters that while the SDLP “don’t do sectarian pacts where it’s unionist versus nationalist,” he is willing “to speak to anybody who wants to retain our membership of the EU and protect our citizens from a hard Brexit”.
He restated this again on Thursday, telling BBC radio that he wants to build a “broad base” among politicians to “make a point about Brexit”.
When pressed about how any Sinn Fein/SDLP pact would be viewed by the voting public, he stressed he did not have “a sectarian bone in my body”, and would “never” engage in a pact for purely nationalist reasons.
Sinn Fein are overwhelmingly the biggest anti-Brexit party in the Province, and have signalled that they are receptive to the idea.
Meanwhile, the similarly anti-Brexit Alliance Party has emphatically rejected the notion of getting involved in such a pact.
However, the leader of the Greens (also strongly anti-Brexit) has told the News Letter his party is considering the idea.
Speaking on BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback show early on Thursday afternoon, Mr Maginness (who represented North Belfast from 1998 until last year) said sectarianism is “the greatest evil” facing Northern Ireland – and suggested that electoral deals generally amount to “sectarian headcounts”.
“That’s a step which I could not accept, and which I hope the SDLP would not accept either,” he said.
Asked if it would be possible to successfully forge a pact of the kind Mr Eastwood has suggested – one based on shared anti-Brexit views, not shared united Ireland views – he said: “I’d worry about that. [It’s] very tricky indeed.
“And if it’s simply a camouflage for a sectarian pact in, say, Fermanagh and South Tyrone or some other constituencies, then I think that would not be good for our politics.
“All I would say is this: be very careful, be very careful.
“Because you could be led into a trap – particularly by Sinn Fein – in relation to this.”
Mr Maginness, a member of the SDLP since the early 1970s, retired last year after declining to contest his seat again.
He pointed out that Sinn Fein has “only lately” come to support the EU, having reversed its old position.
As reported earlier this year by the News Letter, the IRA’s Green Book – which all volunteers had to live by – contained strongly anti-EU sentiments.
In addition, Mr Maginness said that boosting Sinn Fein’s electoral strength would be a “futile exercise” when it comes to challenging Brexit, because Sinn Fein MPs do not take their seats in Parliament.
A Sinn Fein spokesman said that the party has no intention of giving up this absentionist stance.
The News Letter tried to reach Mr Maginness directly, but could not.
His contribution came after fellow party stalwart and former leader Margaret Ritchie (MP for South Down) strongly rejected any notion of an electoral pact when appearing on Radio Ulster on Wednesday.
She had told the show, clearly and repeatedly, that the SDLP “do not do electoral pacts” (and then mere hours later, Colum Eastwood suggested doing just that during a press conference).
The News Letter likewise tried to reach Ms Ritchie, without success.
Mark Durkan, MP for Foyle, was asked about whether he would have any moral qualms about entering such an agreement with Sinn Fein given its history, and replied: “I’m not answering your question in those terms, ok?
“I’m not getting into any of the language like that, because in that case you could ask that question [about] the power-sharing arrangements we have.”
He said you could then ask the same question about taking part alongside them in Stormont committees, “or anything else”.
He said people should not be “fixated” on the idea of any pact being a two-party deal.
“That’s not at all how this issue is being addressed or assessed or weighed up by party members,” he said.
Pat McCarthy, former lord mayor of Belfast and current member of the SDLP’s 15-strong party executive, said that “everyone else is speaking to everyone else”, and asked what was wrong with the idea that nationalists too could have “a conversation”.
When it was put to him that Sinn Fein was intimately linked with the IRA and the Troubles, he said: “Well, the DUP went into government with them.”
Mr McCartney said he had been interned without trial for one year during the 1970s.
He said he “was a member of the republican movement”, adding that he was never charged with anything, was never involved in or advocated violence, and never belonged to any paramilitary organisation.
He recently accepted an MBE, and has been quoted in the Irish News speaking of his pride in his father’s record as a wartime merchant seaman, and of annually attending Belfast’s Cenotaph for acts of remembrance.
As to whether he would himself have misgivings about doing a deal with Sinn Fein, he said: “I think you should talk to everyone. Get their views, then reach a decision. It’s early days yet.
“There’s a lot can happen between now and the 8th of June... Let’s see what’s put on the table. You can always say no.
“If people want to talk to you, it’s nice to talk.
“If we’d had more ‘jaw jaw’ rather than ‘war war’, we might have been in a better position as a country.”
He pointed out that unionists had joined with UVF and UDA-linked figures to create the Unionist Forum over parades a few years ago.
He suggested it was “double standards” to accept that, but then to regard it as unacceptable for “the SDLP to speak to other nationalists”.