Sam McBride: Pacts expose a profound problem for complacent unionist leaders
Since its creation 98 years ago, Northern Ireland’s politics has been starkly different to that of either Great Britain or what is now the Republic of Ireland.
With an existential threat to the new state, it was inevitable that political debate would be focused on whether the Irish border should exist at all rather than the finer points of policy as to what happened on the northern side of that border.
For decades, elections were quasi-border polls, with the Official Unionist Party kept in power not because of its policies or its record in government, but because it supported the Union.
Likewise, the nationalist party was not elected because of its economic or social policies but on its belief that the only way to make politics work on the island of Ireland was to remove the border.
Fast-forward to the decade after power-sharing devolution was restored in 2007: In a vastly more competitive political environment and with responsibility for most public services, elections were increasingly fought on arguments about who had performed well or poorly in government, alongside the hoary old arguments about unionism and nationalism.
But with the collapse of devolution in 2017 leaving politicians shorn of any responsibility to govern and then with Brexit introducing unexpectedly sudden constitutional uncertainty, it is the familiar arguments about the border which have returned to dominate political discourse – even if sometimes camouflaged as a position on Brexit.
Even during the devolution decade, old habits survived. David Cameron’s desire to – in alliance with the UUP – take on the DUP in every seat could not survive the instinctive desire among many unionists for unionist unity where there was a possibility of defeating Sinn Féin.
That led to all the unionist parties endorsing an independent unionist in Fermanagh-South Tyrone although he narrowly lost.
Five years later the DUP and UUP agreed a wider pan-unionist pact, standing aside for each other in four of the 18 constituencies.
Sinn Féin reacted by putting pressure on the SDLP to respond in kind with a nationalist pact, but the SDLP refused, arguing that such a pact would be sectarian.
In the 2017 general election, the UUP and DUP took what they described as “unilateral” decisions to stand aside for each other in several key seats, forming a de facto pact.
When Boris Johnson called this general election, the only shock was that new Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken initially said that his party would contest all 18 seats. Within days, he had backed down, standing aside in Nigel Dodds’ potentially knife-edge North Belfast constituency, with the DUP standing aside in the similarly tight seat of Fermanagh-South Tyrone.
Previous decisions on unionist pacts were not universally welcomed from within unionism. Liberal unionists such as the former UUP deputy leader John McCallister warned that unionist unity would inevitably lead to nationalist unity.
But the repeated rejection of such deals by the SDLP and other smaller parties bred complacency among some unionists who believed that pacts were effectively a secret weapon for unionism in that nationalism could not respond in like manner.
To the shock of some DUP members and other unionists, that belief has been blown away in this election. There is now a far wider anti-unionist pact (although it is not described in those terms, that is its effect) than there is a pro-unionist pact, encompassing Sinn Fein,the SDLP and the Green Party.
What has brought these parties together is Brexit and its ushering in of an era where many old certainties no longer apply.
On one reading, this is a great leap forward for non-tribal politics in Northern Ireland, with even Sinn Féin saying that it would stand down in North Down (its weakest seat) and advise its voters to back the unionist Lady Hermon, although she then said that she would not be standing.
But is this really a decisive political reformation or merely the old tribal politics being dressed up in more respectable clothes?
SDLP member Máiría Cahill believed so and resigned in protest at what she said was a “sectarian headcount”, especially in North Belfast, one of the most polarised constituencies where the SDLP is standing aside in favour of Sinn Féin’s John Finucance, despite the fact that if he is elected he will not take his seat at Westminster, a policy the SDLP has long criticised.
Alliance, the party with the strongest non-tribal as well a pro-EU credentials, is sceptical about what is going on and has refused to partake in the de facto pact.
Even though Alliance may not win a seat anywhere – and at most could take two seats – it could be the long-term winner, especially because its centrist rival, the Green Party, has stood down for nationalist parties, weakening its centrist credentials.
But regardless of whether this turns into a tactical victory or defeat for unionism when the votes are counted in the early hours of December 13, those wanting to preserve Northern Ireland’s place within the Union have already been presented with evidence of a strategic quandary.
For unionists, there ought to be an obvious question about the events of recent weeks: Why are other parties prepared to join forces to oppose it? Most of the pact seats involve attempts to unseat DUP MPs and it is unionism’s dominant party which is most despised among those who do not vote for it.
But why have none of the pro-Remain parties stood aside for the Ulster Unionists? There is a strong argument that the SDLP and the Greens – using their own logic – should not contest South Antrim, where it is a straight choice between DUP Brexiteer Paul Girvan and UUP Remainer Danny Kinahan.
By not doing so, they leave themselves more open to the charge of only being interested in seeing non-unionists elected. But the absence of obvious choice within unionism has made it easier for the UUP to be seen as an off-shoot of the DUP. Lord Trimble famously promised the creation of “a pluralist parliament for a pluralist people”, but there is now little sense of pluralism within unionism.
That partly explains why the events of the last fortnight have exposed a profound difficulty for unionism.
In the DNA of the Belfast Agreement was the principle of consent. Inserting it there was Trimble’s key triumph. With a clear pro-Union majority, accepting the principle that the border could only be removed with the consent of a majority of NI citizens was effectively a unionist veto on Irish unity.
Despite demographic changes and a fall in support for unionist parties, few people believe that if a border poll was called tomorrow that it would lead to a united Ireland.
But that comfort for unionism has bred complacency. Some unionists, especially within the DUP, appear to go out of their way to do things which offend those who are not unionists – and often some of those who are unionists.
There has been no electoral punishments for that. But there has grown a distaste about incidents such as Gregory Campbell’s “curry my yoghurt” and Nelson McCausland’s glib comment on the post-Brexit border: “I wouldn’t care what sort of situation I face as long as I’m out of Europe”.
That distaste has now contributed to an anti-DUP pact which once would have seemed far-fetched.
Unionists will complain that the Greens are backing nationalists, just as in recent years unionists have complained that the Alliance Party has sided with Sinn Féin.
But politics is about persuasion. Why is unionism losing the battle to persuade some of those who would once have described themselves as unionists?
For now, that question is about elections and seats in Westminster.
Very soon, it could be about a referendum on Irish unity and the very future of Northern Ireland itself.