The argument over a unionist pact in north Belfast is over. In the December 12th General Election, the UUP will not run a candidate in the constituency, where the DUP Westminster leader Nigel Dodds is the sitting MP.
After saying his party would run candidates in all constituencies, this is a climb down by the UUP leader in waiting Steve Aiken, but it is not a surprise.
Last Thursday, he told this website that he was in conversation with leaders in the community in north Belfast, adding: “We will listen respectfully to what the people say across the piece.”
We could hear what what they were saying about the danger of splitting the unionist vote.
With hindsight, Aiken should have left this issue to Robin Swann who doesn’t stand down as party leader until November 9th. He didn’t and, on Sunday, had to issue a statement explaining why his party will not be running in North Belfast.
“The choice in North Belfast is between Nigel Dodds as MP or an abstentionist MP who refuses to stand in Westminster to talk about health, education, justice, international affairs, or the future direction of the United Kingdom.”
All of this was known before the Aiken interview declaring his intention to stand party candidates across the frame.
“In the face of Boris Johnson’s terrible deal which forces Northern Ireland towards the edge of the Union, we cannot gift a seat to Sinn Fein – who support this direction – either in North Belfast or Fermanagh and South Tyrone,” he said.
Aiken also referenced the threats and intimidation against Ulster Unionist Party staff and members.
“In a modern democracy no one should have to face threats, intimidation or coercion of any sort because of their involvement in the democratic process,” he said.
“It is appalling and totally reprehensible and should have no place in Northern Ireland in the twenty first century.”
FERMANAGH SOUTH TYRONE
Away from North Belfast, the former Ulster Unionist leader Tom Elliott has not yet decided whether he will compete for the Fermanagh South Tyrone seat in the December 12th election.
Yet, on Saturday, Arlene Foster issued a statement, which included this sentence: “Despite the DUP being the largest unionist party in the constituency, it is right to put wider interest ahead of narrow party politics and indicate our support for Tom Elliott to re-take this seat.”
He won it in 2015 but, two years later – in the snap General Election – lost to Sinn Fein’s Michelle Gildernew.
The Ulster Unionist selection meeting is scheduled for Thursday and Elliott still has a number of people with whom he wants to speak before reaching a final decision.
A BIGGER QUESTION
In recent days, this issue of pacts has dominated the political conversation; but there is a bigger issue.
Why is the unionist community so unnerved on this question of the Union?
The answer is the fallout from the latest Brexit deal, and because despite repeated warnings, those from here closest to the negotiations between London and the EU did not see the Boris Johnson plan.
What we witnessed was another last-minute walk away by the DUP.
Track the numerous statements from the Ulster Unionist Party from early October – from Aiken, from Swann, from Lord Empey, from Doug Beattie – predicting Johnson’s direction of travel and, for Northern Ireland, the “total betrayal” within his plan.
In one statement, Swann spoke of Northern Ireland being treated like “a chess piece in a very high risk game”. In another, Empey said Northern Ireland was being walked into a “no man’s land”.
So, in recent days, the battle over pacts has been a distraction from this bigger question.
Boris has bolted. Yes, his deal on Brexit is not yet over the line, but – depending on the post-election numbers at Westminster – it might be too late to close the door.
In the here and now, this is the real story.