Thursday 14 November 2019

John Downing: 'Brexit might become a voter issue in North as parties dance to tune of 'Lannigan's Ball''


Steve Aiken (PA)
Steve Aiken (PA)
John Downing

John Downing

The crude summation of elections in the North has been to dub them "a sectarian head count". Next month it might be different, according to some hopeful signs.

Even over the past 30 years since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, bar the odd welcome flurry of support for the cross-community Alliance Party, and less so for the Green Party, both the unionist and nationalist communities have still responded to the call to "vote for the tribe".

But the recent 'Lannigan's Ball', with different nationalist and unionist party candidates stepping out to let others step in, has raised hopes that the vote in Northern Ireland could address the real bread-and-butter issue of Brexit. These December 12 elections for the Westminster parliament in Northern Ireland are being hailed by some as "the most interesting election for some time".

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Of the 650 Westminster parliament seats, 18 are assigned to Northern Ireland. Since the last election these have been shared out as follows: 10 to Arlene Foster's Democratic Unionist Party; seven to Sinn Féin and one to the Independent unionist Sylvia Hermon.

That vote in June 2017 saw the disappearance of the nationalist SDLP and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), each of which had endured a sliding decline since endorsing the Good Friday Agreement.

Since the DUP backed Leave, and since Sinn Féin continues its dreary boycott of the London parliament, it has meant the only Remain voice there is Ms Hermon. The persistently strange thing here is the North voted 56pc Remain against 44pc for Leave in that fateful June 2016 Brexit referendum.

And since then there have been strong signals that key DUP supporters, in farming and business, have been very unhappy with the DUP's referendum stance and its later belligerence in the Brexit negotiations.

Yet up to recently the UUP, which had backed Remain from a very weakened position, failed to really challenge the DUP on Brexit.

Some observers felt there was a gap in the unionist end of the political market that went unexplored. Then enter Steve Aiken, new leader designate of the UUP, who briefly vowed to go head to head in all constituencies against the DUP. But that tough stance was dialled down amid unionist community warnings that it would open the gate to the "abstentionist Sinn Féin".

The constituency of North Belfast, where DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds looked vulnerable to Sinn Féin's John Finucane, was in focus. After a big kerfuffle, including PSNI inquiries into loyalist death threats against UUP staff, Mr Aiken relented. He left a clear path for Mr Dodds, and in return got a DUP pull-back from Fermanagh South Tyrone where former UUP leader Tom Elliott might have a chance of a seat.

That all hardly puts Brexit at the heart of things. It also harks back to darker times and the prospect of the UUP gaining from the DUP is left looking like a real long shot. Thus, we were back to the tribe again.

But on the other side of the equation there was different news as Sinn Féin yesterday upped the number of constituencies in which it is standing aside to a total of three.

In all, the party is standing aside in East Belfast, South Belfast and North Down, and urging its supporters to back Naomi Long, of the Alliance Party, Claire Hanna, of the SDLP, and Sylvia Hermon respectively in each constituency. Let us note that the SDLP's Nichola Mallon is also pulling out from North Belfast to help Mr Finucane.

Mary Lou McDonald has styled this as "backing Remain" and it may result that way. But it could be more to do with knocking the DUP off its perch as the biggest party.

Depending on how you call those key constituencies, the unionist-nationalist breakdown could change. It could go even numbers at nine seats to either side.

That might signal still further change in the North's political landscape with some of the shift driven by Brexit. But things remain tribal.

Irish Independent

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