Tactical Voting & Top Dogs

The jungle drums are hammering out the beat that more elections could be on the way in the North. Political commentator, Dr John Coulter, uses his Fearless Flying Column to explore the view that it’s not republican unity which Unionism fears most, but tactical voting which could see Sinn Fein overtake the DUP as the North’s top dog. 
Tactical voting – that’s Plan B for Northern Catholics now the Sinn Fein and SDLP leaderships have failed to deliver any crop of unity candidates.

Things have moved a long way in the nationalist camp since the smart move by South Belfast Shinners some years ago in withdrawing ex-Lord Mayor Alex Maskey. Then, this move assured victory for the SDLP’s Alasdair McDonnell.

But this is no longer the case. The electorate has shown it wants both republican unity and unionist unity as the last Westminster poll clearly demonstrated with both Sinn Fein and the DUP emerging with 17 of the North’s 18 Commons MPs.

However, we still don’t have Stormont up and running. If the DUP is batting clever, it should push for a temporary period of Direct Rule and let Theresa May’s Tories take the blame for implementing biting cuts to the North’s NHS and schools.

After all, Sinn Fein is still – unlike the SNP – not taking its Commons seats so it is effectively politically neutered when it comes to challenging the DUP at Westminster. Sinn Fein is more interested in the next Dail showdown than another Stormont poll.

Besides, a period of Direct Rule – given that both the SDLP and UUP lack any Commons seats – will practically spell the death knell for both parties. That could have a knock-on effect politically in any future Assembly election following a new deal between the DUP and Sinn Fein.

If both the SDLP and UUP are reduced to single-figure MLA representation, it leaves the DUP/Sinn Fein power-sharing Stormont Executive with a new brand of ‘majority rule’ across Northern Ireland.

When Catholics see their ballot papers at the next Stormont poll and are confronted by two nationalist candidates and a unionist unity, or strong unionist runner – they have two choices.

They can follow their hearts and vote for their preferred nationalist, hoping they get enough votes to pip the Unionist.

Or, they could follow the so-called Mallon Model of plumping for the nationalist best placed to halting a Unionist victory.

This was clearly demonstrated in Newry and Armagh during the 1986 Commons by-elections caused by Unionist MPs’ anger at the previous year’s Anglo-Irish Agreement.

Three years earlier, the UUP’s Jim Nicholson – now an MEP – squeaked the seat on an evenly split nationalist vote.

Next time round it was simple – a few thousand Catholics simply switched from Sinn Fein to the SDLP, and Seamus Mallon, later Stormont deputy First Minister to Trimble, romped home.

Nationalists pulled the same tactical voting trick a year later in the ’87 General Election, robbing veteran Unionist and controversial MP Enoch Powell of South Down.

And in 2001, nationalists voted tactically for Sinn Fein’s Pat Doherty in West Tyrone to snatch the seat from Unionist Willie Thompson.

Likewise, in the Westminster battles, just because Fermanagh South Tyrone has two nationalists and an agreed Unionist does not mean the seat will fall again to Unionism.

If Catholics use the gossip grapevine to vote for Sinn Fein MP Michelle Gildernew rather than anyone the SDLP can produce, the seat will remain dark green.

In bygone years, this mobilisation of the Catholic vote would have been easy. It was done through chapel pulpits.

But those pulpits have been severely tarnished by the child abuse cover-up scandals and many Catholics no longer feel confident in taking advice from clerics.

At first reading, any plea for unity candidates in North and South Belfast makes perfect sense from a nationalist point of view with the DUP holding the seats.

So why does the supposedly tough-talking SDLP consistently pour ice cold water on unity candidates? Maybe, like the UUP, it has learned the bitter electoral lesson that voting Mike doesn’t get Colum?

In fact, open Catholic unity candidates could act as a red flag to the Orange bull.

Decades ago, the Order played a major role in which Protestant candidates got selected and elected.

With the Orange making a complete tit of itself in the past, especially among significant sections of Protestant opinion because of its anti-pope rhetoric, nationalists don’t want Unionists to react to green unity candidates by putting up their own red, white and blue versions.

But the Orange Order has since learned from its mistakes, and if the DUP should ever ‘go liberal’ like the election-battered UUP, it is only a matter of time before we see Loyal Order candidates as pro-Union candidates on the ballot papers.

Over many decades, Unionists saw multiple Protestant candidates on the ballot paper as a chance to gut each other politically.

But nationalists have become more disciplined in their voting, both in their choice of candidate and turnout.

In many cases, multiple nationalist candidates on the ballot paper are merely clever ploys not to provoke Unionists.

Look at the success of this policy. In 1974, 11 of the dozen Commons MPs were Unionists. Now almost half of the North’s 18 seats are nationalist.

The once influential West Ulster Unionist Council is a forgotten force. It’s not republican unity candidates which Unionists fear most, but nationalist tactical voting strategies.

  • Follow Dr John Coulter on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter

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Anthony McIntyre

Former IRA prisoner, spent 18 years in Long Kesh. Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher.

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