From top: SDLP leader Colum Eastwood; Geryy Adams’ tweet yesterday
Derek Mooney writes:
OK. I must get this off my chest. I am no fan of RTÉ’s northern editor, Tommy Gorman. It is nothing personal. I know he is a good reporter and is well on top of his brief. It is just his ever so slightly over the top and knowing style of presentation that gets to me.
That said, there are moments when his tendency to go hyperbolic is appropriate. Last night was one of those. Reporting on SDLP leader Colum Eastwood’s Stormont press conference, Tommy recognised the significance of Eastwood’s call to protect the pro Remain vote in Northern Ireland.
He was right to do it. It is significant and may be the first new thing to happen organically in NI politics for a long time.
In declaring that he was “…open to discussions around how we can protect the interests of Northern Ireland and the majority who voted to remain” Eastwood opened the door on creating a new majority in Northern Ireland, one based on a set of idea and policies, not issues of identity and what Dr Cathal McManus has described as “Othering“.
OK, “create” is putting it a little strongly there. Eastwood is not “creating” that new majority. We have the eurosceptic Tories and UKIPers to thank for that.
The new majority in Northern Ireland is the 56% who voted to both reject Brexit and reject turning back the clock to the 1950s. Prime Minister May says the June 8 election to be about Brexit, well then… let it be about precisely that.
Even Gerry Adams agrees.
Within 25 minutes of Mrs May announcing her plans to call an election Gerry had put down his teddy and taken to Twitter to declare this election “another chance 2 vote against Brexit”.
It is. The UK general election is about Brexit. In Northern Ireland it is about doing everything that can possibly be done to avoid a hard Brexit and a hard border.
Remain/Anti-Brexit parties in the North must ensure that it is fought that way – and that means all the Anti-Brexit parties and politicians, not just the ones on one side of the traditional divide.
The Brexit referendum stirred people to vote in numbers that Northern Ireland had not seen in decades. Much to the surprise of many pundits, they stayed motivated and came out in equally large numbers at the last assembly election – even though the choices on offer to them then were more binary.
That is the way the DUP wants to fight this general election. Not surprisingly their main spokespeople have been saying that this election, like the last one and the one before and the one before that one, is all about saving the Union.
Not for the first, or the last, time, Messrs Foster, Dodds and Wilson are wrong. This is not about the union. We know that for two reasons:
- Mrs May has told us that it is about Brexit and…
2. If it was about safeguarding the Union and doing what was in the interests of its component parts would the Tory government at Westminster be calling an unnecessary election in the middle of a political crisis in Northern Ireland?
Mrs May and her Tory colleagues (well most of them – I am happy not to lump the likes of Ken Clarke and Anna Soubry etc. in with them) are not too bothered about how this election impacts the North, just in the way that she is not too deeply concerned about how her Brexit folly will impact either community in the North and either part of this island.
What may catch her attention though, is seeing some of the loudest champions of Brexit from Northern Ireland losing his seat in the House of Commons, such as Nigel Dodds, for example.
At the Brexit referendum in June 2016 his Belfast North constituency voted to remain by 20,128 votes to 19,844. A tight margin, but a win nonetheless. At the last Assembly election, the broadly pro remain parties in his constituency secured just short of 22,000 votes while the broadly pro Brexit ones got over 17,500.
I know you cannot presume that every SDLP, Alliance, SF or Green party voter is a definite anti Brexit voter, just in the same way that you cannot presume that every single DUP or UUP voter is a pro Brexiteer, but it is a better than even money bet that Mr Dodds could be toppled and replaced by an independent/non-aligned pro Remain candidate if the pro Remain parties were to put the future well-being of people before short-term party gain.
(NB Profs Garry and Coakley at QUB conducted a valuable piece of research on the political allegiances of pro/anti Brexit voters – it showed DUP voters were 70% Brexit and UUP ones 54% Brexit)
The same strategy should be applied in any constituency with a pro Brexit sitting MP – Tom Elliott in Fermanagh and South Tyrone comes to mind – the pro Remain parties agree to back a single pro Remain candidate.
This works the other way around too. The staunchly pro-Remain South Belfast MP, Alasdair McDonnell represents a constituency that voted overwhelmingly to remain (about 70% on a 68% turnout) in 2016 but, under the arcane British first-past-the-post voting system, he could lose that seat to the DUP if the DUP can secure a pact with the UUP and the pro remain parties cannibalise each other.
What Eastwood is suggesting is a no-brainer. It makes sense for the North and for us here in the Republic too. We need to send a signal from this island that a hard Brexit and hard border is bad for us all here. Our friends in the North, across both communities, can deliver that signal on all our behalf.
Securing agreement on how precisely to make this work among the pro Remain parties will not be easy. There will be difficulties and sensitivities for all of them, not to mention the requirement for some to break an old habit and actually put the bigger picture ahead of their own party’s welfare.
Besides, it is not as if there is not another election coming up again soon in the North when the old petty jealousies can be run out again.
Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil-led government 2004 – 2010. Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney