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The lack of a progressive alliance in Northern Ireland was a historic error of judgement

Deprived of the ability to influence and scrutinise Brexit in a parliament where the DUP pull the strings, pro-Europe parties will regret not reaching an agreement.

By Patrick Maguire

Despite winning only one seat, the Greens were in chipper form last night. No wonder: their decision to step aside for Labour in Brighton Kemptown resulted in a thumping defeat for Simon Kirby, the Tory city minister. That, said one senior source, was the best advertisement for a progressive alliance one could ask for.

The same cannot be said for Northern Ireland. There is no measure by which this election was a good one for progressive, pro-European politics – nor for co-operation between them. It is true that Sinn Fein, outspoken opponents of Brexit, nearly doubled the size of their Commons cohort with two gains from the Social Democratic and Labour Party and one from the Ulster Unionists (going from four to seven). They will not, however – despite inexplicably fevered speculation – abandon the habit of a century and take their seats.

And so Northern Ireland’s nationalist community, the vast majority of whom voted to remain in the EU, will have no representation within the Commons chamber, and no vote on the Brexit deal. And each Sinn Fein MP elected lowered the threshold for an overall majority – ultimately letting the DUP-backed Tories in.

Let’s not be too lachrymose about this: Sinn Fein’s electoral pitch is that abstensionism works, and it was a proposition that voters in Foyle and South Down agreed with. But of the 11 MPs who will take their seats, only one – the independent unionist Lady Sylvia Hermon – was pro-Remain. Though Hermon is voted against the invocation of Article 50 and is prone to bouts of iconoclasm, she alone cannot represent the 56 per cent of Northern Irish voters who backed continued EU membership.

It is in this respect that the SDLP, who also lost Belfast South to the DUP, are an almost incalculable loss. Not only will no Irish nationalist MPs sit in the House of Commons for the first time in over a century, Westminster will be deprived of the sustained and close scrutiny its MPs, chief among them Mark Durkan, the man who helped shape the Good Friday Agreement, have imposed throughout the Brexit process thus far. There are not many MPs, and fewer ministers, who understand the granular detail of Northern Ireland’s constitutional status and what that means for Brexit.

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There are even fewer now. And though neither party would ever admit it, the SDLP are valuable policy outriders for Sinn Fein. A well of expertise has disappeared overnight.

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Yet this need not have happened. There was a clear road to ensuring that the DUP were counterbalanced by strong pro-EU voices in the Commons chamber, and it was one the cross-community Alliance party ostentatiously chose not to take. Had Sinn Fein, the SDLP, Greens and Alliance agreed the anti-Brexit pact mooted by the two nationalist parties in April, then South and East Belfast need not have returned two DUP MPs, and Sinn Fein would have almost certainly beaten the DUP’s formidable Westminster leader Nigel Dodds in North Belfast.

One can sympathise with Alliance’s reasons for not partaking. The party say they do not agree with “sectarian head-counts”, and were unwilling to lend their support to the SDLP’s Alasdair McDonnell in South Belfast on account of his pro-life stance on abortion. Perhaps the decision to announce McDonnell as the anti-Brexit candidate in South Belfast without consulting Alliance was misjudged. Perhaps new candidates ought to have been found to fight under a cross-party anti-Brexit banner. The SDLP, after all, would be well within their rights to argue that Alliance, as a party who voted for the welfare cap in the 2010 parliament, do not have a faultless progressive record. 

The truth, however, is this: Alliance gambled everything on two seats where the odds would inevitably be stacked against them in a multi-party fight and they lost. And the pro-Europe cause lost. Principled though their objections were, the Commons is now a much poorer place for the homogeneity of its Northern Irish cohort and that is a direct consequence of the failure of all involved to agree electoral pacts in key seats.

Yes, the DUP fought a strong campaign. They were certainly cleverer than most of their opponents. Arlene Foster’s astute decision to frame the contest as a referendum on unionism was savvy and has paid due dividends. But her party was not unbeatable in seats like South and East Belfast. All it would have taken was cooler heads and a little magnanimity from the leaders of the parties on its pro-European left flank.

Deprived of the ability to influence and scrutinise Brexit in a parliament where the DUP pull the strings, they may well live to regret not striking a deal – and prioritising their own chances over the needs of Northern Ireland’s electorate.