Cutting A Deal With The Nationalists

John Coulter with a piece from the Tribune Magazine looking at the possible lay of the land after today's British general election. Dr John Coulter is a radical right wing unionist writer and an evangelical Christian. He is a former columnist with The Blanket and now pens a column for the Irish Daily Star.

The real kingmakers of the next House Commons coalition could well be the “gang of three” nationalists from the moderate left of centre Social Democratic and Labour Party.

The Tories have been screaming about the threat posed by the new nationalism, when in reality they are referring to the prospect of a Labour government propped up by the supposedly rampant and progressive left SNP with its friends in Welsh nationalism.

But Ed Miliband should not ignore Labour’s sister party in Northern Ireland, which has been fighting an electoral version of the Alamo against Sinn Fein.

What may save the SDLP from a predicted Scottish-style Labour wipe-out is that the party’s three MPs take their Commons seats, unlike Sinn Fein which is still maintaining its 1905 founding principle of abstentionism from Westminster.

Sinn Fein wants to pull the rug from the SDLP by eating into its traditional middle-class heartlands. Ironically, for some time it has been administering the sort of electoral drubbing to the SDLP which the SDLP once dished out to the now defunct Irish Nationalist Party.

While the Gerry Adams-Martin McGuinness peace strategy has propelled Sinn Fein into the power-sharing Executive at Stormont, the republican movement must inevitably prepare for the post-Adams era when that generation of Sinn Fein politicians are pensioners.

Sinn Fein has tackled this problem by grooming a brand of so-called “draft dodger” – candidates who have no known or open links to the IRA.

Initially, when Sinn Fein impacted on the Northern Irish political scene in the post-1981 hunger strike era, the majority of candidates were ex-prisoners who had served their republican “apprenticeships” in the Provisionals.

The jailbird ticket worked effectively in working-class republican heartlands. But if Sinn Fein was to be taken seriously, it needed young middle-class Catholics with no IRA past.

As these young, politically clean cut” republicans began to emerge, once-safe SDLP seats in the Commons, on councils and in the European Parliament were vulnerable.

In some cases, SDLP representatives in strongly Catholic constituencies only kept their jobs through the tactical voting of Unionists, determined to keep out Sinn Fein candidates.

Ed Miliband must know that he will have to cut a deal with Scottish, Welsh and Irish nationalists if he is to take the keys of Number 10 Downing Street from David Cameron. His tactic should be to negotiate first with the moderate left of the SDLP before dealing with the SNP and Plaid Cymru.

In public relations terms, the SNP has been wiping the political floor with Labour. The SNP is seeking to sell the idea of a progressive left alliance opposing any Tory-UKIP link-up.

In theory, Miliband should have no difficulty with the concept of a progressive left alliance, but he may find the SDLP more receptive to supporting him as Prime Minister. The more parties needed to send the Tories back to opposition, the more compromise will be required to establish a “rainbow coalition”.

While Sinn Fein is expected to win up to five seats compared to the SDLP’s three, abstentionism renders its MPs ineffective in voting terms – unless the unthinkable happens.

Miliband could offer offers such a carrot to Sinn Fein: abandon abstentionism, takes an oath of allegiance using a suitable wording, and use its votes in the House of Commons to secure a more progressive government than any Tory or Tory-led one.

Could it happen? Well, Martin McGuinness is already Deputy First Minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and Gerry Adams could well be Tanaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) of the Irish Republic after next year’s general election in the Irish Republic.

Sinn Fein has come a long way since IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands was elected MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone in 1981. Abstentionism has been ditched in both the Dail and Stormont. So could Westminster be next?

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