PACT OR NO PACT – THAT IS THE QUESTION – By Brian Rowan

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The thinking and the words in the scribbled note dated October 10th proved insightful.

I was chatting on the phone with someone who has the Westminster pulse.

“If hardy comes to hardy, they’ll chuck us over,” my source commented; this a full week before the Boris Johnson Brexit deal with the EU that left the DUP behind and Northern Ireland overboard.

My source is not an MP; but has a record of being able to accurately read the Westminster tea leaves.

POLITICAL EARTHQUAKE

Since that Johnson deal, there have been more questions about the future of the Union.

We heard some of that from former attorney-general  Dominic Grieve on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme on Wednesday: “My judgement and I think it’s one which is shared by a number of my colleagues…is that this deal is extraordinarily dangerous for the future of our country. I think it carries with it the implication for the break-up of the United Kingdom.”

BREXIT BATTLEGROUND

So, Brexit will be the battleground for the December 12th General Election; and, here, that will be stretched into a tug-of-war that is Union versus Unity.

For several years, I have seen our politics in this frame; no longer just about direct rule or devolution but this third choice or way.

Old certainties are being challenged. Brexit – and we still don’t know its final shape – has changed the mood, the script and the dynamics.

In the 2017 General Election, the nationalist community turned its back on Westminster. Seven Sinn Fein MPs were elected. They do not take their seats.

The DUP with 10 MPs have had significant clout in a Parliament where the Tories have needed their numbers and votes; but Johnson, on a solo-run, abandoned them on October 17th and, with his deal, took his friends in the ERG with him.

That deal is not yet over the line; and we are now heading for the most important and unpredictable election in recent decades.

POST-ELECTION QUESTIONS

The direction of travel will depend on the counting and the numbers after the voting on December 12th.

Will Boris Jonson survive as Prime Minister?

Will his Brexit deal be the last say on this matter?

What influence will the DUP have; and, given all that is at stake, will the Ulster Unionist Party leader in waiting Steve Aiken be able to hold to his line on no pacts with the DUP? His stated determination is to run 18 candidates in 18 constituencies.

On Thursday he told me he has been in conversation with leaders in the community in north Belfast.

“We will listen respectfully to what the people say across the piece,” he added.

So, it is too early for a final say on any of this. To borrow a phrase, his position on pacts is likely to pass through a number of iterations.

Also on Thursday the Belfast Telegraph published a letter to Mr Aiken from a number of unionists in the North Belfast constituency, warning him that splitting the vote could cost unionism the seat. It is held by the DUP’s Westminster leader Nigel Dodds.

All of this – discussion on the Brexit deal, the implications for the Union and the upcoming election – will be part of a public meeting on the Shankill Road on Friday evening, featuring contributions from a panel and a question-and-answer session with the audience.

FERMANAGH SOUTH TYRONE

One of Aiken’s goals is for his party to regain the seat in Fermanagh South Tyrone. That is only possible with an agreed unionist candidate.

Former Ulster Unionist leader Tom Elliott won by 530 votes in 2015; then, two years later, lost to Sinn Fein’s Michelle Gildernew; the gap on that occasion 875 votes.

Will Elliott run again in 2019? His response for now is: “We’re early in the campaign and a lot can happen between now and nomination day.”

There is much to be discussed within the unionist community and elsewhere.

The European election earlier this year underscored the remain position here from the 2016 referendum when the second unionist seat was lost and the Alliance leader Naomi Long was elected.

There was no pact. Voters worked it out for themselves.

Again, we are not expecting any formal remain pact this time; but, in this pre-Christmas election, we will watch to see how hard some of the parties run in some of the constituencies, including in Belfast and in North Down.

“These are extraordinary times that demand an extraordinary response,” said Green Party leader Clare Bailey.

“In the face of another snap general election and continued chaos at Westminster, we must put the interests of the people ahead of those of any single party or candidate.

“That takes guts and the Green Party remains open to having these difficult discussions,” the south Belfast MLA said.

Alliance has ruled out any remain pact: “As evidenced in the May elections, we are best placed to unite voters from unionist, nationalist and non-aligned backgrounds under a remain banner,” a spokesman told this website.

To quote a senior source from another of the parties, that Alliance position “makes it impossible” for others to agree a pact.

What happens in this Westminster election will determine what is possible here at Stormont.

It has been my view that nothing would change here until the numbers changed there.

A government dependent on DUP votes at Westminster meant the Northern Ireland Office became a hostage to the confidence and supply agreement in London.

In those circumstances, it has proven impossible to get a deal to restore the Assembly and the Executive.

Will this election change the numbers in London and open up new possibilities here? This is something else for which to watch  when the votes are counted.

This election is of huge significance.

Brexit has changed and is changing the conversation and, for some, not just the conversation, but the political direction.

This place is being taken down different roads.

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About Author

Brian Rowan

Brian Rowan is a journalist/author. A former BBC correspondent in Belfast, four times he has been a category winner in the Northern Ireland Press and Broadcast Awards. He is the author of several books on the peace process and contributed chapters to 'Reporting the Troubles' and 'Brexit and Northern Ireland: Bordering on Confusion'.

8 Comments

  1. Gearoid Mac Siacais on

    PACT OR NO PACT ARCH BREXITEER NIGEL IS ON BORROWED TIME.

    In the 2017 Election Nigel Dodds scraped home 2081 votes ahead of John Finucane, an admirable and very competent candidate.
    Dodds managed this from a a clear Unionist field.
    2019 offers a huge opportunity to Dump Dodds and his poisonous creed. Even should U Turn Steve do as we all expect.
    He will, by the way, signal the final death knell of the UUP when he buckles under DUP pressure and loyalist intimidation.
    In 2017 there were 2051 voters who gave the SDLP paper candidate a vote in NB.
    Voters don’t need pacts. They can, as you say, work it out for themselves.
    SB could be a challenge don’t know who I’d go for there just know who wouldn’t get my vote

    • Mr Finucane wants to jump to the front of the victims queue elbowing everyone else out of the way
      And whilst understandably he looks for answers for his own family he is not prepared to ask around his political and social circle to get answers for others including many who would be his constituents should he become an MP
      Not a very admirable stance

  2. If unionists enter a pact, so too should SF and the SDLP in north and south Befast.

    The DUP stepping aside in Fermanagh/South Tyrone is no big deal. It’s a seat they could never win.

    The DUP espouse dirty politics….fine. SF and the SDLP should not allow the expected positive outcome for the DUP from such dity politics. SF & the SDLP know what they have to do to counteract that outcome.

  3. What’s frightening in the Rep is the little reportage from the Irish media re, the threat from loyalism towards the UUP.

    Shameful.

  4. Bit like the under reporting that went in in 1981 when the Hume led SDLP and others were “requested” not to stand in the Fermanagh South Tyrone By Election on 9th April 1981-I get your point

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