In the 2015 the DUP and the UUP formed an informal electoral alliance whereby the parties agreed not to run candidates in certain constituencies so as not to split the unionist vote. The result of this, in collaboration with some other local factors, was that unionist candidates in two constituencies, namely Fermanagh and South Tyrone and East Belfast, defeated non-unionist incumbents. However, in the last few days it was announced that the DUP and the UUP will not pursue such a pact in the upcoming general election. This needs to be exploited by the republican movement before the opportunity passes.
In order for the republican movement to successfully undermine unionist political organisations, it must first ascertain what the purpose of the election is. So what is the point of this general election in Northern Ireland? Since the Brexit vote Sinn Féin have been calling for a border poll and will likely campaign on the issue. This is unwise. Even after the Brexit vote an Ipsos Mori poll found that, although there was a sharp rise in those who agreed with Irish unification, this number still only stood at 22%.
The goal of the republican movement should, therefore not be a border poll. Instead, it should be to build the momentum for a stronger republican movement so that a border poll can be proposed in future when unification has wider public support. The political reality behind this is that in marginal constituencies, republican and nationalist parties should join forces to shore up the pro-unification vote and/or unseat unionists.
The electoral logic behind such an idea is simple. In a first-past-the-post system, it makes the most sense for parties to unite against a common opponent where the situation demands it. In heavily republican areas, it doesn’t matter that much if the SDLP and Sinn Féin both run candidates. However, if Sinn Féin and the SDLP both stand against an incumbent unionist and split the vote, the calls for Ireland’s reunification will be taken less seriously in the media and the corridors of power.
A prime example of this is in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, one of the constituencies that the DUP did not stand in at the last election. The UUP’s Tom Elliott won 23,608 votes and Sinn Féin’s Michelle Gildernew won 23,078 votes, giving Elliot a majority of 530. The SDLP came a distant third with only 2,732 votes. If Sinn Féin and the SDLP had united in the same way that the UUP and the DUP had, the constituency would have a republican MP. The same electoral error should not be made again.
This is also especially important given the new political context of Northern Ireland. The main aspect of the recent 2017 Stormont election that was picked up by the press was that the Northern Ireland Assembly no longer had a unionist majority. In the days and weeks after the election, unionist community leaders came out and talked about a ‘crisis of unionism’ that needed to be addressed. It was the failure of the unionists to achieve a majority that made headlines, not the increased vote of republicans, and therefore all the pressure to succeed is on unionist politicians. If the republican movement united in certain constituencies, this narrative will be furthered and will give the republicans confidence going forward.
At this election parties can strategically act to undermine reactionary unionist politicians, and that should be a reason to be motivated about the next few weeks. The SDLP have rejected Sinn Féin’s calls for an electoral pact in certain constituencies, but I would still urge them to think again. If enough momentum builds to drastically reduce the number of unionist MPs, there will be a fundamental challenge the ideological foundations of unionism. The media will report less frequently on unionist politicians, because there will be fewer of them, and for young people who are not especially politically minded, republicanism will become more mainstream despite their religious background. The SDLP and Sinn Féin need to come together so that the Ulster reactionaries are kicked to the curb.