A guide to electoral pacts in Northern Ireland

electoral pacts

While there has been a lot of comment on potential electoral pacts in England and Wales, the parties in Northern Ireland have already embarked on a tactical game to secure their preferred outcome at Westminster.

Whereas all other elections in Northern Ireland use a proportional system, Westminster elections use first past the post.

In 2017 that produced ten Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MPs, seven abstentionist Sinn Féin members and one independent unionist, Lady Sylvia Hermon, who supported remain in the referendum.

The sum was that, despite Northern Ireland overall favouring Remain, over 90% of MPs from Northern Ireland in Westminster supported leaving the EU.

This has been central in driving particularly pro-remain parties to form pacts.

The multi-party politics in Northern Ireland mean a number of seats could easily change hands at the next election, potentially altering the course of Brexit, especially if there is another hung parliament at Westminster.

So far, only Alliance of the major parties has not stood a candidate down in at least one seat. The table below shows the withdrawals to date.

Who’s standing down and where?

electoral pacts

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), reeling from the agreement of a de facto East-West border by Boris Johnson in the Brexit talks, are seeking to shore up the unionist vote.

They have so far convinced their more moderate unionist rivals, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), to stand down in Belfast North. This was despite the UUP, critical of the DUP for its handling of the Brexit process, having initially pledged to stand in all 18 seats.

This is the DUP’s most vulnerable seat, held by the party’s leader at Westminster, Nigel Dodds. It would only take a 2.3 per cent swing to Sinn Féin to fall, so the party can ill afford any unionist competition.

It remains to be seen whether the UUP stands aside elsewhere, but the party is keen to capitalise on what they see as DUP weakness following the outcome of the Brexit process.

The DUP have returned the favour by giving the UUP a free run at Sinn Féin in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, as they did in 2017.

So far these concessions are minimal, and merely reproduce the situation at the last election in the seats concerned, where neither party ran against the other. In that sense it is a defensive strategy to secure the existing base.

On the pro-Remain side, the most significant moves have come from Sinn Féin and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), a more moderate nationalist party.

Both agreed to stand aside in Belfast East, where the Alliance Party, which identifies as neither unionist nor nationalist, are the only ones with a realistic chance of challenging the DUP, and whose leader Naomi Long is trying to regain the seat she won in 2010—then aided by a split unionist vote.

Even more intriguingly they are also both standing down in North Down, where Lady Sylvia Hermon has recently announced she is standing down, making it a potential three-way fight between the DUP, UUP and Alliance.

Less surprisingly, the two nationalist parties also agreed to stand aside in seats where the other is better placed to challenge the DUP: Sinn Féin are not standing in Belfast South and the SDLP in Belfast North.

The final move came from the Green Party, whose leader Clare Bailey declared she would not stand again in Belfast South, clearing the way for the SDLP’s Claire Hanna to challenge the DUP.

Why are parties standing down?

These are not formal electoral pacts but piecemeal concessions. But this is not unusual in Northern Irish politics.

Unionist and nationalist parties are often in discussions during elections to maximise the representation of their respective communities where they potentially risk losing seats to the other tradition by competing.

What is new, however, is the formation of an apparent pro-remain alliance. It remains to be seen whether it is seen as such by voters, or simply as a nationalist pact under a different name.

However, the fact that the Green Party, which is aligned with neither community, has also agreed to aid the election of a pro-remain candidate from another party, and that the nationalist parties stood aside in North Down, suggests otherwise.

These informal agreements also interact with another divide in Northern Irish politics, between Sinn Féin and the SDLP. In the 2017 the SDLP refused to stand aside for Sinn Féin owing to the latter’s refusal to take up their seats.

However, that principle appears now to be second to the desire to stop Brexit, with the SDLP happy to help remove pro-Brexit DUP MPs even if their replacement does not take their seat in Westminster and vote.

Will it make a difference?

Will any of this make a difference to the final result? On the unionist side, the agreements reached so far at best protect the seats they already hold. A bigger issue may be the impact on the DUP vote of their failed strategy of relying on Johnson’s Conservatives to deliver an acceptable Brexit.

On the remain side, there appears to be more potential to ‘add value’. In Belfast South in particular, currently held by the DUP’s Emma Little-Pengelly, the SDLP will hope to add the substantial number of Sinn Féin votes from last time, which collectively would have won them the seat in 2017.

Equally in Belfast North, in theory combining Sinn Féin and SDLP votes from last time would draw level with the DUP.

In Belfast East, the fact that Sinn Féin and the SDLP are not standing may do little to the overall numbers, given their negligible vote share last time, but it does simplify the choice for voters, which could help Naomi Long.

We may not be at the end of the process yet either. These informal pacts could snowball as one alliance reacts the to the moves of the other.

The fact that the remain alliance appears so far to have been more effective will put pressure on the UUP in particular to stand down in more seats, but also on the Alliance Party to reconsider its policy.

By Matt Bevington, researcher at the UK in a Changing Europe.

Disclaimer:
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.

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