When the SDLP suddenly realised that a snap UK election may cost it all three of its Westminster seats, it immediately did something which may in the medium term herald the end of the party – it sought a sectarian pact with Sinn Féin.
It has, of course, since tried to dress this up as an “anti-Brexit” pact. This does not even begin to stack up. If the SDLP were genuine about opposing Brexit at Westminster, why was its first port of call a party which does not even participate there? Why has the only other Northern Ireland MP who actually turns up and opposes Brexit, Lady Hermon, who happens to be Unionist, not ever been mentioned within this “anti-Brexit” ploy?
It gets far worse, however. Because not once has a serious plan to secure Northern Ireland’s future relations with the European Union been mentioned.
Here is the real thing: most of the issues which impact upon Northern Ireland’s future relations with the European Union are in fact devolved. Northern Ireland is perfectly able, if the SDLP’s new bed mates in Sinn Féin were ever to take their seats in the Executive, to maintain EU policy in fields as wide as employment law and consumer protection. It is at liberty to seek its own arrangements on access to Health Research and reciprocal healthcare arrangements with EU states. It is even at liberty to seek its own specific deal on sharing information to tackle crime, recognising driving licences, and managing educational exchanges. Northern Ireland will also have to manage agricultural subsidies, infrastructure funding and even social programmes currently managed by or funded by EU bodies. As of next year, Northern Ireland could even decide to run with a policy of zero corporation tax to challenge for FDI as a “gateway region with access both to the UK and the EU”. Not a single aspect of this – all of which should be being dealt with by the Assembly as this election campaign goes on – has even been mentioned.
Brexit is going to happen whatever the outcome of this General Election in Northern Ireland, but the outcome of it could be managed so that the worst impacts were avoided and indeed some advantages sought through specific arrangements. To turn it into a simplistic issue to be dealt with by a sectarian pact with an abstentionist party whose own heritage is laced with Euroscepticism shows yet again a willingness to put short-term electoral advantage over the real long-term interests of the people of Northern Ireland. No wonder, thankfully, more and more people are turning away from the sectarian politics which has served them so poorly on this issue and many others.