The Alliance Party is stuck between a rock and a hard place. The rock being their pro-EU position, the hard place their stanch opposition to electoral pacts of any kind. To clarify, Alliance has ruled out standing aside in any of the North’s 18 constituencies in the upcoming general election on 12th December. Alliance campaigned to remain within the EU during the 2016 Brexit referendum and continues to oppose Brexit, supporting a so-called People’s Vote or second referendum on Brexit. Therefore, it seems logical that they would want to do everything they can to maximise the number of anti-Brexit representatives elected in the North. However, by standing candidates in every constituency, Alliance risks splitting the anti-Brexit vote and facilitating the return of pro-Brexit DUP MPs to Westminster, even in constituencies where other anti-Brexit candidates have a much greater chance of winning or retaining the seat. This is a counter-productive and solipsistic strategy.
Other anti-Brexit parties, including Sinn Féin, the SDLP and Green Party, have already withdrawn from key battleground constituencies to give the most prominent anti-Brexit candidate the best shot at winning the seat. Alliance leader Noami Long has attempted to characterise this unilateral decision by each party as “divisive and sectarian”, however this accusation doesn’t hold water. As opposed to the DUP-UUP pact, which exists solely to secure unionist seats despite the wishes of the wider electorate, the ‘Remain alliance’ includes parties from different backgrounds to the benefit of other anti-Brexit parties across the political divide. For example, Sinn Féin have stood aside in South Belfast (to the benefit of the SDLP), East Belfast (to the benefit of Alliance), and North Down (to the benefit of independent unionist Sylvia Hermon, until she subsequently decided to stand down as an MP). Unless Alliance members are willing to argue that Clare Bailey, Sylvia Hermon and their own party leader are nationalists or republicans, their opposition to the ‘Remain alliance’ remains tenuous.
Personally, I am not a proponent of electoral pacts and I have argued against them in conversation before. However, this election is different for two important reasons. Firstly, voters in the north of Ireland rejected Brexit in 2016, voting by a margin of 56% to remain within the EU. Secondly, the DUP, who currently hold 10 seats in Westminster, support Brexit and a hard Brexit in particular. Therefore, the anti-Brexit mandate already exists but it is being denied by the DUP. It is imperative that anti-Brexit parties seek to maximise the number of anti-Brexit candidates elected in December, even if it means making way for another party’s candidate. It can be a hard pill to swallow but difficult times demand difficult decisions, and what distinguishes those who make the right decision is leadership. Alliance could stand aside in North and South Belfast, for example, but it would appear that the leadership has chosen to prioritise the party’s self-interest over the public interest. It’s still early days and Alliance might change tack but, as of yet, it seems as though they’re staying the course.
It’s worth noting that Alliance hasn’t always been opposed to electoral pacts. In fact, during the 2001 general election, the party stood aside in four constituencies to assist the election of MPs who supported the Good Friday Agreement, including the then-UUP candidate for North Down, Sylvia Hermon. This resulted in Sylvia successfully taking the seat from the sitting UK Unionist Party MP Robert McCartney, who opposed the Good Friday Agreement. Evidently, Alliance’s support for the Agreement was strong enough to warrant them standing aside in four constituencies in 2001, so why doesn’t their opposition to Brexit warrant similar action? This inconsistency comes into even sharper relief when considering the direct and serious threat that Brexit poses to the Agreement. The fact that Alliance was able to help secure seats for pro-Agreement MPs is proof that working with other parties can be a viable and effective strategy, especially when the stakes are high.
Some may question why any anti-Brexit party should stand aside in North Belfast, given Sinn Féin’s abstentionist policy. To those of us who support abstentionism, we understand and appreciate the valuable work that Sinn Féin MPs do in their local communities, across the island of Ireland, and abroad. In relation to Brexit, Sinn Féin MPs, alongside the party’s TDs and MEPs, have played a crucial role in Dublin, Brussels and even Washington to mitigate the consequences of Brexit for Ireland and to protect the Good Friday Agreement in all of its parts. However, even for those who do not support abstentionism, the rationale is simple. John Finucane, the Sinn Féin candidate for North Belfast, is best placed to take the seat from the Nigel Dodds, the deputy leader of the DUP and a key architect of Brexit. Replacing Dodds with an anti-Brexit MP would be a resounding rejection of Brexit by the electorate and would send a clear message to the DUP that we do not take kindly to being ignored.
Alliance’s current position begs another question: what will the party do if Brexit comes to pass and the North leaves the EU, on the terms of Boris Johnson’s deal or otherwise? Presumably they would support another referendum to re-enter the EU, but how realistic it that? The likelihood of not only securing another referendum on EU membership but winning that referendum seems remote, especially considering that European powers are very unlikely to allow Britain to re-enter the EU on the same favourable terms that it currently enjoys, such as exemption from the eurozone. There is another option however – a united Ireland. The European Council has already confirmed that the North will automatically re-enter the EU in the event of reunification with the rest of Ireland. As such, it provides the most direct pathway for the North back into the EU in a post-Brexit world. Would Alliance support a border poll as a means for the North to re-enter the EU? Or would their ostensible neutrality on the constitutional question trump their European credentials? These questions are, of course, hypothetical, but the hypothetical may become reality sooner than expected.
Brexit is the biggest issue facing Ireland at present. It is a threat to citizens’ rights, the all-island economy and our peace process. A cross-community majority voted against Brexit in 2016 and it is imperative that we respect that mandate by working on a cross-community basis to elect as many anti-Brexit MPs as possible. Uachtarán Shinn Féin Mary Lou McDonald hit the nail on the head when she stated, “Whether you call yourself a unionist or a nationalist, a republican or a loyalist, we actually have many, many interests in common.” Brexit makes this very clear. Regardless of one’s background, community, faith, national identity or political persuasion, we all have something to lose from Brexit. We need courage, leadership and pragmatism from our political leaders to do the right thing, to put the public before party. In this election, that means working with other parties to elect anti-Brexit MPs and outmanoeuvre those who seek to drag the North out of the EU against our will. Sooner or later, Alliance will have to decide which matters more: their pro-EU position or their opposition to working with other parties. By 12th December, we will know the answer.
Cormac Begley is a Sinn Féin member and activist.