Sam McBride: Having secured the nationalist pact it sought, Sinn Fein could come to regret it

Possible MPs Colum Eastwood and Claire Hanna
Possible MPs Colum Eastwood and Claire Hanna
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Politics is a often a ferocious battle for power, with rival personalities and ideologies fighting to emerge victorious.

Often even the winner finds that they are unable to implement all of their ideas but are constrained by other factors.

However, sometimes in politics parties get what they want – and it is not always in their interests.

In the 2015 general election, the DUP and UUP agreed a pact covering four constituencies after the then UUP leader Mike Nesbitt relented in the face of years of grassroots unionist pressure and a long-standing DUP calls for unionist unity.

But when the votes were counted, it was the UUP leader who emerged with the biggest smile.

Not only did his party win a seat – Fermanagh-South Tyrone – thanks to the pact, but he also took a seat outside the pact in South Antrim, at the DUP’s expense.

The DUP returned with the same number of MPs but its vote was, when compared on a like-for-like basis, pretty static from before the pact. Mr Nesbitt, who had been under pressure as UUP leader, emerged in a stronger position, having seen his party achieve its best general election result since 2001.

By contrast, six months later DUP leader Peter Robinson announced that he was resigning as DUP leader.

In that election, Sinn Féin – in a similar electoral position to the DUP, as the dominant party within nationalism – publicly appealed to the SDLP to match unionist unity with nationalist unity.

Sinn Féin was in some cases prepared to be explicitly sectarian about the election. Infamously in North Belfast, Sinn Féin candidate Gerry Kelly distributed a leaflet which included a bar chart for the total number of Catholics and Protestants in North Belfast.

Taking the total number of those born as Catholics – including even those who were by then atheists or too young to vote – he described them as “a nationalist majority”.

At that point, the SDLP resisted Sinn Féin’s calls for a pact. The party’s North Belfast veteran Alban Maginess said bluntly: “We are opposed to these sorts of sectarian headcounts and pacts.” Former SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie similarly said: “We don’t do electoral pacts...the SDLP fights the election – each and every election – on our own mandate and our own basis.”

Four and a half years later, all is changed. There has been a degree of unionist unity – although on a smaller scale than in 2015 – but to the surprise of many unionists that has been met with an SDLP–Sinn Féin deal. However, while that process was driven by Sinn Féin which has always been the most enthusiastic proponent of a nationalist pact, the SDLP could emerge from it as the biggest winner.

The deal – which now includes the Green Party on the basis that it is a pro-Remain arrangement – is likely to see the SDLP’s most capable performer, Claire Hanna, elected in South Belfast. With incumbency on her side, even if there is not an electoral pact in the next general election, she will be difficult to dislodge.

Outside the pact, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood is personally taking on Sinn Féin in Foyle and has a real chance of victory against Elisha McCallion, one of Sinn Féin’s weakest candidates.

It is highly possible that the SDLP, a party long said to be in terminal decline and with no MPs, could come back with two MPs.

If so, at a point when Sinn Féin is facing its own decline in the south and needs to prioritise resources there, the north would suddenly look slightly more vulnerable.

Having been forced by internal disquiet to publish the initially secret vote of John O’Dowd’s challenge to northern leader Michelle O’Neill just last week, Sinn Féin is looking less than sure-footed.

With rumours of a possible January deal with the DUP to return to Stormont, the party could be doing so from a position weaker than republicans would like.