Brian Feeney: This will be mother of all sectarian headcounts

DUP leader Arlene Foster at the election count in Omagh Leisure Centre


IT'S not the first time British political exigencies have taken precedence over northern parish pump wrangling.

The best (or worst) example was 1974 when a snap general election derailed the infant Sunningdale executive and destroyed Brian Faulkner's career. Nothing like that will happen in June since there's nothing to destroy.

What Theresa May's opportunism will guarantee is that nothingness will continue here this summer. True, the parties were promised another round of talks starting next week but that won't happen. It would be pointless. No one is going to concede anything during an election campaign which has already kicked off. How could they sit up at Stormont when they should be running selection conventions and getting posters and election manifestos printed? It certainly demonstrates just exactly where Theresa May places the north's difficulties in her priorities, doesn't it?

Yes, some people are speculating that her proconsul may call an assembly election also for June 8 but that is improbable for a number of reasons. Two different electoral systems on the same day are not a great idea. In some places the same candidates running for both assembly and Westminster: a bit confusing even for candidates. There would be a bumper bundle of spoilt votes.

Besides, the result would return Sinn Féin and the DUP as the largest parties and we'd be exactly where we are today. So the general election guarantees nothing but an echo chamber at Stormont until the autumn at least. Talks in the run-up to the marching season? Not likely.

So what about the election? It's going to be on the old boundaries so Belfast keeps its four seats with an unexpected chance for Depooty Dawds to hang in there until 2022 courtesy of the SDLP. Will Alasdair McDonnell hang on to South Belfast which he won with the lowest share of the vote in Westminster history, 24.5 per cent, since when he's been thankfully silent? The odds must be against him but that hasn't stopped him in the past.

Then the $64,000 question. Will there be a unionist pact and if so, will it stretch across the north or just in sectarian hotspots like North Belfast and Fermanagh/South Tyrone? Enormous pressure will be on the UUP to make a deal across the board in East Belfast, South Belfast as well as North Belfast and Fermanagh/South Tyrone.

Sinn Féin will be desperate to regain Fermanagh/South Tyrone which they should not have lost. The UUP majority was a near squeak, 530 out of a total vote of 51,152 in a 73 per cent turnout. The odds are on Michelle Gildernew regaining the seat given the unpopularity of the incumbent among the nationalist majority. But Gildernew would have to be the candidate.

Now here's an interesting point. Gerry Adams agrees for once with Theresa May that the issue is Brexit. "Another chance to vote against Brexit", he tweeted. Arlene Foster prefers to see it as a sectarian headcount. "A chance to vote for the union," she tweeted. Which will it be? On this Arlene will be proved correct. She will treat it as the unionist equivalent of a border poll. On past evidence she knows no other way to fight an election. Given the result of the March assembly election this election will be the mother and father of all sectarian headcounts, a chance for unionists to prove they still exist. What else has a Westminster election in the north ever been for them? Wasn't that why the north of Ireland was carved out?

Still, it may be some unionists opposed to Brexit will refuse to cooperate with Arlene. If so, watch Foyle and South Down. In those overwhelmingly nationalist seats the role of the SDLP is to provide unionists with a nationalist to vote for other than Sinn Féin. It will be easy to calculate if the SDLP vote contains a chunk of disaffected Remain unionists.

One unforeseen by-product of the election is that since Theresa May is confidently expected to stuff the Labour party and perhaps gain a majority in excess of a hundred it will extinguish what clout the DUP MPs have enjoyed at Westminster since 2010. Every cloud has a silver lining.



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