Well, that was an interesting seventy-two hours in northern politics. Last Friday the incoming leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, Steve Aiken, was still insisting in press interviews – albeit not very convincingly – that he would stick by his guns and eschew any electoral pact with the dominant Democratic Unionist Party to secure greater pro-union representation across the Six Counties. However that wavering determination pretty much collapsed following fierce criticism from within his own community, culminating in threats of violence widely linked to the increasingly restless UDA-UFF; the terrorist gang whose membership has canvassed for the DUP in the recent past and whose leadership apparently pulls some of the party’s strings on several policy questions, including finding a solution to the Brexit impasse that has hung over Ireland and the United Kingdom since 2016.
On Sunday, and to no one’s surprise, the UUP announced a swift change of plans, stepping aside to leave a clear run for Nigel Dodds in the constituency of North Belfast, where the highly divisive DUP leader at Westminster and its chief Brexiteer strategist was expected to be under some pressure to retain his seat in the face of strong competition from the Sinn Féin candidate John Finucane, the current Lord Mayor of Belfast and son of the assassinated civil rights lawyer Pat Finucane, if the pro-union vote was split.
Hot on the heels of that predictable statement from the UUP came news from Nichola Mallon, the ambitious deputy leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, that the SDLP was also standing aside in North Belfast, facilitating the SF challenge in the area, while doing the same in East Belfast and North Down, implicitly making electoral room for Naomi Long of the liberal pro-union Alliance Party of Northern Ireland in the former area and the moderate independent unionist MP and fierce DUP critic Sylvia Hermon in the latter.
This well-staged bit of politics has forced Sinn Féin to reciprocate, with leader Mary Lou McDonald announcing that her party would not contest South Belfast, East Belfast and North Down, significantly enhancing the electoral chances of the SDLP in the south of the city, the APNI in the east and Sylvia Hermon in County Down. While this initially made SF look considerably weaker and less visionary than its northern competitor, media attention is already shifting to its more explicit and newsworthy call for nationalist voters to support two liberalish pro-union candidates in the north-east, including the widow of the ex-head of the infamous Royal Ulster Constabulary, to thwart the ambitions of the DUP. Perhaps unfairly placing the SDLP back under its shadow once again.
All that said, it has been a good couple of days for the SDLP, slightly less so for Sinn Féin, possibly so for the Alliance Party and Independent Unionist Sylvia Hermon, not so much for the DUP and very much not so for the UUP, no matter what reciprocal offers the DUP have signalled. What remains now to be seen is how the APNI and others, including the Green Party, will respond to the pan-community gestures by the SDLP and SF. Given some of the begrudging or dismissive Alliance Party rumblings on social media it’s not looking entirely good for some positive responses on its part.