To pact or not to pact: the Northern Ireland Green dilemma
From the moment when Theresa May, contradicting every previous promise, brought our Easter to an abrupt end with her announcement of a snap election, the talk has all been of pacts. And while our sister Green Party in England and Wales called upon Labour and the LibDems to work together in ‘a handful of seats’, we in the Green Party in Northern Ireland were taking the opportunity to debate our own position.
In our very different political landscape, the question of electoral alliances here bears little relation to that in England and Wales. (As Adam Ramsay has discussed, Scotland’s position is different again.) With our Assembly and local councils elected using the Single Transferable Vote, Westminster elections are the only ones still to use the first-past-the-post system. In an STV election there is generally no point in a pact, as voters can (though they don’t always realise it) send quite a nuanced message about both the parties they prefer and the parties they would tolerate. The creation of electoral pacts for Westminster elections inevitably blunts that nuance, and can lead to some oddly contradictory messages. That is especially the case now, less than two months from our last Assembly election, and while agreement on a new Executive is vanishingly remote.
And the substance as well as the form of Northern Ireland’s politics makes alliances problematic. It isn’t just the core identity of most parties as nationalist or unionist (or in the case of Alliance, neither) which tends to manifest itself in terms of opposition to the other, and, as Mike Nesbitt recently learned to his cost, adds layers of perceived personal and community betrayal to any suggestion of co-operation across traditional boundaries. It’s also the fact that issues such as equal marriage, reproductive rights and integrated comprehensive education, which in Britain find general agreement among the centre and left, are by no means settled in Northern Ireland. Even the word ‘progressive’ is a problem here.
Meanwhile, in terms of the composition of the UK government, there’s very little difference that a Northern Ireland electoral pact, covering a mere eighteen seats, could possibly make. Even in the last parliament with its small majority, there was no formal arrangement between the Conservatives and either the DUP or UUP, while the SDLP will not invariably support Labour positions. Sinn Fein MPs, of course, absent themselves from the fray altogether. So in terms of getting rid of the Tories, our role is mostly one of cheering from the sidelines.
But this time looked a bit different. The potential disaster of leaving the European Union, and especially the single market, is such a huge issue for us here that an anti-Brexit pact made sense in ways that a mere ‘progressive’ one never could. And Theresa May’s rhetoric of a united people and divided Westminster felt like a challenge. To me, as a longstanding Green Party member and candidate in the past three elections, it initially sounded like a runner.
A week later, after internal discussions and talks with potential partners, the Green Party in Northern Ireland has decided not to enter such an electoral alliance. I believe wholeheartedly that it was right for us to consider the proposed pact, and right to decide against it. These are my personal reasons for thinking so.
In order for an anti-Brexit pact to be worthwhile, it would have to be both achievable and effective. It would have to deliver more pro-Europe MPs than would be the case otherwise and those MPs would have to work together, and with their British colleagues, to make a real difference in Westminster and beyond. Merely returning a majority of MPs with the ‘anti-Brexit’ label would be nothing by itself but a piece of statistical trivia. The UK government already knows, and demonstrably doesn’t care, that a majority of people in Northern Ireland voted Remain; the mere fact that our MPs represented that preference would scarcely be of any more concern.
So, what were the chances? In theory they might have been quite good. Before the referendum, all the parties were pro-Remain except for the DUP, People Before Profit and the Socialists. There should have been the potential for a demonstrably cross-community position. Unfortunately the Ulster Unionist Party, which had been fairly robustly Remain (I shared a platform with a local UUP MLA) collapsed post-referendum into an it’s-a-done-deal fatalism. Our local MP, Tom Elliott, was pro-Leave from the start, perhaps mindful that he owed his own seat to a pact with the DUP, and his parliamentary colleague was quick to join him in voting to trigger Article 50. By the time the anti-Brexit alliance talks were underway, the UUP had already stood aside for the DUP in several constituencies, and the favour had been returned for Tom Elliott. This volte-face was particularly sad given that Northern Ireland’s one independent MP, Lady Sylvia Hermon, has demonstrated the value and coherence of a pro-Europe Unionist stance, not least in her work on the Northern Ireland Select Committee.
Without UUP support, the next potential partner along the constitutional axis would have been Alliance. With its links with the LibDems, and its insistence upon its ‘other’ identity, Alliance’s involvement would have been symbolically valuable. Sadly, the suggestion was rejected immediately and out-of-hand by its newish leader, Naomi Long, and an anonymous spokesperson subsequently attacked the Green Party in vitriolic terms for even considering the idea. According to Ms Long the pact was inevitably ‘nationalist’ despite the clear invitation to her own party to help prevent it from being so.
The most enthusiastic cheerleader for the pact was the leader of the SDLP, Colm Eastwood, who managed for a few days to be a fixture on the regional news on the strength of it. The rest of his party, however, weren’t always on-message. The announcement, as the Greens were considering our position, of the SDLP’s reselection of Alastair McDonnell for South Belfast, was a major blow. The Green Party in South Belfast is large, young, passionate and feminist, as was demonstrated by the globally-trending #awakeforbailey hashtag which anticipated Clare Bailey’s re-election to the Assembly less than eight weeks ago. Dr McDonnell, on the other hand, is a pillar of his party’s hardline anti-choice position, which even opposes the minimum reforms needed to make Northern Ireland’s abortion law compliant with basic human rights. The idea that Green voters would support him as a unity candidate was unthinkable.
Which left only Sinn Fein. I have some doubts as to whether it can truly be said to be anti-Brexit, rather than just anti-border. It is undoubtedly the case that the existence of a hardened border, restricting trade and personal freedom, is the most urgent and serious threat that Brexit poses for us in the region. But the idea that Irish unification would be some kind of panacea ignores the inextricable social and economic links between our two islands. It is understandable, given Sinn Fein’s primary objective, that its representatives would conflate an anti-Brexit stance with moves towards a united Ireland, leaving Great Britain, as they might see it, to sort out its own mess. Understandable, but not terribly helpful, at a time when we need the widest possible co-operation in opposing the folly of a hard Brexit at all.
To some extent, though, even that is a moot point, as Sinn Fein continues to fetter itself with its abstentionist doctrine. If ever there was an ideal time to move on from that position, this might have been it, and for that reason alone it was worthwhile our exploring the possibilities. But it appears that there will be no change. In my view, this is a tragically missed opportunity. For the truth is that the House of Commons is the place where the government is called to account, where Theresa May cannot hide, where scrutiny and free speech are, however inconveniently for the establishment, enshrined in long tradition. Article 50 couldn’t be triggered without the consent of Parliament, and the same will be true of the major steps between here and the end. Sinn Fein MPs won’t be there to vote, but just as importantly they won’t be there to speak, to negotiate, to ask awkward questions and not to give up until they get the answers. To do, in short, what Caroline Lucas has been doing since she took her seat, with no compromise or loss of integrity.
Looking back across the events and opinions of the past week, I returned to my original touchstones, that to be worthwhile an anti-Brexit pact would have to be both achievable and effective. To be achievable it would have to appeal to a wide range of voters, who would have to be comfortable with the candidates agreed. South Belfast has provided a clear example of the difficulties inherent in this, difficulties which would be writ large when it came to Sinn Fein candidates and memories of conflict. And to be effective it would need to return MPs who are able and willing to work with their pro-European colleagues from across the UK and from different political traditions. The first step in that process is actually being at Westminster to begin the work.
For me, this period of consideration and discussion has been hugely valuable. I was once again encouraged and inspired by the practical application of the Green principle of grassroots democracy, in the leadership’s active desire to involve party members in the decision, in the respect and generosity which was shown in our internal discussions and in the thoughtful and honest conclusion which was reached. It was courageous to try, and we have received criticism and vitriol. But I believe that we have also earned respect, and that we have made it easier for all parties to work together positively, across traditional boundaries, for a better and fairer future.