Northern Ireland’s political landscape is being reshaped in a potentially seismic way, with a series of unprecedented electoral alliances in response to the constitutional upheaval of Brexit.
Although the unionist parties have formed electoral pacts in the last two Westminster elections, SDLP has historically shunned such alliances, denouncing them as sectarian.
It is almost four decades since the SDLP stood aside in favour of Sinn Fein, and that was at the height of the hunger strikes when Bobby Sands was contesting Fermanagh-South Tyrone.
However, in a further example of how debate about the UK’s departure from the EU has overturned old certainties, the party has now altered that stance, standing aside in a critical constituency in favour of Sinn Fein.
The DUP was the first to stand aside, when on Saturday leader Arlene Foster announced that her party would not contest her home constituency of Fermanagh-South Tyrone and instead endorse the Ulster Unionist Party’s attempt to take the seat from Sinn Fein MP Michelle Gildernew.
That was followed on Sunday by the incoming Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken, who just nine days earlier had categorically pledged to stand in all 18 constituencies, announcing that his party would stand aside in North Belfast in favour of the DUP’s Westminster leader Nigel Dodds, who is facing a stiff challenge from Sinn Fein.
Many within the major unionist political parties were confident that the SDLP would not follow suit and so unionism could benefit from a pact without triggering an equal reaction within nationalism.
However, on Sunday night the SDLP shocked many observers when it announced that it was standing aside in several seats in favour of other candidates, effectively abandoning its long-standing opposition to pacts – although the party insisted that what it was doing was not a pact.
The party said that it would stand aside in North Belfast, helping Sinn Fein’s attempt to topple DUP Westminster leader Nigel Dodds, as well as in East Belfast and North Down.
That was reciprocated yesterday with a statement from Sinn Fein that it would stand aside in South Belfast, helping the SDLP’s effort to unseat DUP MP Emma Little-Pengelly, as well as in East Belfast and North Down.
The only major party not to stand aside in favour of another in any constituency is the cross-community Alliance Party, which, like the SDLP, has always rejected pacts as sectarian.
Political analyst Newton Emerson said that it marked an emerging “three-party system” in Northern Ireland.
Although Alliance may not win seats in December, it may be the biggest long-term winner from the new political landscape.
Alliance has already been growing rapidly in recent years and made a significant breakthrough earlier this year when for the first time its leader Noami Long took one of the two unionist MEP seats in an election which saw Northern Ireland elect one unionist, one nationalist and one who is constitutionally unaligned.
SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon defended her party’s decision to stand aside in favour of Sinn Fein.
She said: “This election is all about stopping Brexit and stopping Boris. It’s about Leave versus Remain. We have taken a very difficult and uncomfortable decision but a very pragmatic one in this election because we need to elect as many Remain MPs as possible who are going to take their seats and vote against Brexit.
“But the reality is that we need to also do what we can to remove the very toxic influence of pro-Brexit, pro-Boris DUP MPs.”
She insisted that “honestly, this is not a pact” and that “no party will have been aware of us taking this decision”.
However, former high-profile SDLP councillor Mairia Cahill rejected that explanation and resigned from the SDLP in response to what she described as “a grubby sectarian pact dressed up as a remain one”.
In announcing Sinn Fein’s decision, party leader Mary Lou McDonald urged the electorate to vote for “the pro-Remain candidates best placed to win the seats”.
She added: “The recent EU election showed there is an appetite among pro-Remain and progressive voters for increasing co-operation between those who represent the majority who voted to stay in the EU.”