The news that the SDLP’s Declan O’Loan had mused about nationalist unity, before being slapped down by his party, is hardly surprising. It reflects an almost inevitable reaction to the calls for unionist unity.
Many have said it, and many are right – ‘unionist unity’ would lead almost inevitably to formal or de facto ‘nationalist unity’. Fermanagh and South Tyrone showed that nationalist voters are willing – even without any formal pacts – to vote for the strongest nationalist candidate when faced with unionist attempts to gain a seat by appealing to their tribe.
O'Loan said that his discussions with constituents on nationalist unity were very strongly supported, but he backed down and withdrew his original statement saying it "does not represent established party policy." The SDLP is reported to be "furious" and that O'Loan was "told in no uncertain terms to withdraw the statement".
However, statements made cannot be unmade. Eggs have been broken, and cannot be put back together. O’Loan had earlier said that: "I believe that a major realignment of northern nationalism is now called for and I think that this means the formation of a new single nationalist party”.
The genie is now out of the bottle – and FST has shown how nationalist unity can work in the interests of the nationalist electorate. Clearly the Ritchie leadership of the SDLP does not agree, but she is, at best, a controversial leader. She does not have the full support of her whole party, despite what some might say. There must be considerable tensions in the SDLP at present, and the long run-up to next year’s Assembly election will not help.
A single nationalist party is, of course, no more rational than a single unionist party – except that nationalism needs to achieve a specific single act before it can move to ‘normal’ politics. Nationalism shares the need to succeed in breaking the link with Britain, regardless of the nature of politics that follows that step. Unionism, by contrast, is already operating within their chosen polity, and thus unionist unity (and indeed unionism itself) is a political nonsense.
However, according to the Good Friday Agreement, the act of breaking the link with Britain will be based upon a referendum when it appears that circumstances are favourable. There is no need, before that date, for nationalists to agree on much, and thus no need for a single nationalist party. Nationalists can be – and are – left or right wing, environmentalists, liberals or libertarians. There is no reason for them to all vote for a single party or a single candidate, and indeed in many cases this would be almost impossible. It would be better, and more democratic, for nationalists to vote according to their political preferences, with the constitutional question as a background. In other words, nationalists should be able to vote according to other issues – economic, social, environmental, etc – in the first instance, and then to transfer their vote to another nationalist party if they wish. In this way, the ‘issue’ politics are registered, as well as the constitutional’ politics.
Many voters have two concerns – an issue, and the constitutional issue – and voting pacts between competing parties allow the voters to register a particular socio-economic preference, without damaging the overall (background) nationalist vote. A single nationalist party, however, would disenfranchise many voters who wish to express a preference for, e.g. more or less public spending, or more respect for the environment, etc. Some voters who find themselves unable to express these sorts of preferences might simply not vote, and their voices would be unheard.
It is thus better for nationalism, for democracy, and for all of our futures, that there are a variety of competing parties within the nationalist family. Already, with only two – both irresponsibly statist – many voices are unheard. Nationalism needs more, not fewer, parties. The question of who their voters transfer to is less important. If a right-wing nationalist votes for a future right-of-centre nationalist party, but transfers to a right-of-centre unionist party, this is not illogical. The first preference – for a party within the nationalist family – would be sufficient to indicate a constitutional preference. If both nationalists and unionists vote in this way the ‘constitutional referendum’ nature of every Northern Irish election is retained, but a connection to ‘issues politics’ can grow. Of course, if the voter is also concerned to register a constitutional position, then s/he can transfer to another nationalist party.
Over time, parties based upon issues – economic, social, environmental, etc – would grow in strength, but in parallel within each ‘constitutional’ community. Voters may become more strategic, but the double meaning of each vote would not be lost.
So, Declan O’Loan, forget about 'nationalist unity' – it would diminish nationalism, both numerically and philosophically. Instead, try to offer the voters a choice of outcomes, and let the voter – who, like the customer, is king – decide what they want, instead of being faced with an uncompetitive monopoly.