I don’t think sectarian electoral pacts are a good idea, not because I have any objection to pacts (I haven’t, in the context of X-vote elections), but because I object to sectarianism. This is not a matter only of preference; it is a straightforward social and economic fact that sectarianism – and the inevitable exclusion of other groups which go with it – is bad for prosperity and equality. It is also a particularly foolish route to go if you are decreasing in number.
Leaving that aside, however, what does the past tell us about how sectarian pacts skew voting intention?
Thus far, that question has been posed only with reference to the four constituencies in which the pact applies, and only with reference to the 2015 UK General Election. Posing it with reference only to a one-off election was the Ulster Unionists’ first mistake. In fact, the most important election in a devolved setting is the Northern Ireland General Election (i.e. the Assembly Election) due in May 2016.
Furthermore, polls and surveys consistently point to a hung parliament and instability. Realistically, to last five years, a UK Government needs not just a majority but a majority of at least 20 (elected with a majority of 21 in 1992, the Conservatives didn’t make it to 1997 without a deal with Unionists towards the end). Although a majority may be possible to cobble together on “confidence and supply” to form some kind of administration, it is not likely to go full term. In other words, even with reference to UK General Elections, a “replay” is likely, possibly even coinciding with the 2016 Assembly vote.
The big short-term error the UUP has made is to withdraw from three constituencies just a year ahead of an Assembly Election in which it was defending vulnerable seats (below quota) in two and had a reasonable hope of a pick-up in one. The obvious example here is the Alliance Party, which stood aside for pro-Agreement Unionists in three constituencies in 2001 and saw its vote halve in all three at the subsequent Assembly poll. The chances are, looking at local election results, that the UUP will escape with two narrow holds, but it will be close and it has probably thrown away any prospect of a gain in Belfast North.
They may argue, conversely, that they have improved their chances in Fermanagh/South Tyrone and Newry/Armagh. In the former case, they may have a point but it is unlikely given the two DUP incumbent MLAs. In the latter, they have no real chance – they have soared past the DUP in recent years but it is extraordinarily difficult with only two quotas between two parties to beat a party by 2 seats to 0 under six-member STV. So neither is any more probable than it would have been otherwise.
The other issue that is clear from the past record is that pacts do not play well for those entering them, but do reinvigorate those excluded from them; and that this applies across Northern Ireland. The Ulster Unionists had put up two presentable candidates in South Antrim and Upper Bann against two poor DUP incumbents, but were reliant on “Liberal lending” of votes to overtake them. Such liberal lending will now be much less pronounced than it would have been. That is the worst short-term error of all.
However, the short term is not even the issue. The bigger point is that pressure for “Unionist Unity” will not subside, and will apply to the race to “secure the First Minister” at the subsequent Assembly Election – and even more so in the event of a UK General Election “replay”. The UUP does not appear to have realised it is now permanently hooked in to sectarian pacts – and primarily on the bigger party’s terms.
The bigger difficulty arises with UK General Elections, where there is no prospect of UUP candidates ever again in two majority Unionist constituencies – for which the DUP has traded two majority Nationalist ones. The UUP abandonment of half the capital city is forever – even if they did wish to mount a comeback against the DUP in those areas, they have no grounds on which to build one, as they are cooperating with the DUP anyway.
In other words, the Ulster Unionist Party is finished as an independent electoral entity, doomed now to negotiate pacts forever more with the very party it should be opposing tooth and nail.