Yesterday this blog suggested that nationalists should copy the unionists, who have selected a 'unity' candidate for Fermanagh and South Tyrone – and thereby beat them.
It seems that this blog was not alone in that line of thinking. It was revealed that Sinn Féin had suggested voting pacts to the SDLP and were shot down. Margaret Ritchie, SDLP leader, called such pacts 'sectarian'. She may be right, or she may also be mistaking constitutional preference for religious affiliation.
While the lack of affection between Sinn Féin and the SDLP is evident, the fact remains that they are closer to each other than either is to any other party, and both compete for the nationalist vote. How the nationalist voters will react to the loss of FST, thanks to the SDLP's hopeless candidacy, will not be seen until the next Assembly election.
It is clear, though, that if unionism is to coalesce around 'unity candidates' in sensitive constituencies, a divided nationalism will suffer. It is true, of course, that such 'suffering' is fairly limited since Westminster has less and less direct control over people's lives as time goes on, but the psychological impact of unionist gloating should not be underestimated. Even if Westminster is of marginal importance – and the power of Northern Irish MPs is negligible – the mere fact of seeing a proportionate number of nationalist MPs elected is important. The proportion of MPs that are nationalist is a sign of the proportion of Northern Ireland's people who are nationalist. When nationalism has 8 MPs and unionism has 10 MPs, it is difficult for unionism to pretent that it is the 'voice of Northern Ireland'. If both blocks had 9 apiece, the impact would be enormous. But if the current unionist scheming bears fruit, May 7 could dawn with 12 unionists and only 6 nationalists – leading unionism to claim, incorrectly, that they represent a large majority of Northern Irish opinion.
This blog is not beholden to any one party, and sees them as mere vehicles towards an end – the reunification and independence of our country. So if one, or both, of the current nationalist parties disappears, this blog will not shed a tear. However, reality demonstrates that nationalists are a diverse people – some are socialists, some capitalists, some big farmers, some unemployed, some students, some Catholics, some Protestants, many atheists … As such, no single party could reflect their diversity, and so the need for different parties remains – Sinn Féin for the more radical, the SDLP for the more conservative. But these parties, as long as they still exist, should recognise that the possession of Westminster seats is symbolic – not just for them as parties, but for nationalism as a whole. Where seats are clearly marginal, they should be able to come together to agree a common position, and the weaker party in each constituency should stand aside. This, if agreed amicably in advance, should not be seen as weakness, but as a way of ensuring strength. The Assembly election results should be the guide to whether such 'standing aside' is necessary, and to which party should stand aside. As such, Assembly elections should be fought without fear or favour, and both parties should compete against each other.
In such a way nationalist confidence can be maintained, and the result of all elections, local, Assembly, Westminster and European, could reflect real nationalist strength. Pacts between nationalist parties are not 'sectarian', but political, as their goal is not related to any religious objective, but to a clearly political one.
This blog has frequently remarked that unionist disunity is nationalism's friend – the TUV being a particularly close friend – but the corollary of that is that nationalist disunity is unionism's friend. This election may show up the cost of nationalist disunity – but it is to be hoped that the two nationalist parties will survey the damage after May 6 and come to their senses.