A unionist pact “is possible” in Fermanagh and South Tyrone in the June 8 snap general election.
DUP Leader Arlene Foster has told The Impartial Reporter that her party “will be having discussions around the possibility of pacts” this week, and UUP MP Tom Elliott stated: “a deal of co-operation is possible. That’s something we will be looking at in the coming days.”
The SDLP has ruled out the possibility of a nationalist pact, stating: “The SDLP doesn’t do sectarian pacts aimed at keeping one community out. Over the coming days and weeks, we’ll be looking at all options in each constituency to maximise the pro-Europe vote.”
Sinn Féin MLA Michelle Gildernew commented: “I couldn’t see the SDLP being willing to enter a pact given their tactical voting in constituencies where they hold a Westminster seat – Foyle, South Down and South Belfast – where there’s a fairly solid practice of unionists voting for the SDLP.”
Following Prime Minister Theresa May’s surprise announcement on Tuesday that she is to seek a general election in seven weeks, Tom Elliott hinted that he would seek re-election, saying: “I will be highlighting the role I have played during my time in Westminster.”
Michelle Gildernew said she has not yet decided if she will stand for the Westminster Election. She told The Impartial Reporter: “Sinn Féin will definitely be out to win the Fermanagh South Tyrone seat. It’s an historical seat, it means a lot to us.”
A seat once held by IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, Fermanagh and South Tyrone has seen some of the closest races ever fought in any election in Northern Ireland. The UUP’s Ken Maginnis stood down from the seat he had held for nearly 18 years in the run up to the 2001 election and Michelle Gildernew won the seat over the UUP’s James Cooper by just 53 votes. In 2010, she kept her seat, with just four votes between her and unionist independent candidate Rodney Connor in a controversial contest, which involved a dispute of the counting of ballot papers. The UUP’s Tom Elliott took the seat from Michelle Gildernew in the 2015 general election by a margin of 530 votes, after the DUP agreed not to stand a candidate.
In a statement to The Impartial Reporter yesterday (Wednesday), Arlene Foster said the general election will provide the opportunity “to vote for the union and to ensure Northern Ireland has strong representation with regards to the Brexit negotiations.”
She continued: “It is important that we have representation at Westminster, particularly as this is the most Westerly constituency, situated close to the border. Having a sitting MP allows the views of people living here to be articulated clearly to the Government.
“Over the coming days there will be speculation about electoral pacts, mainly here in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. As a party, we will be having discussions around the possibility of pacts, in order to maximise the Unionist representation at Westminster.”
Speaking from Westminster, Tom Elliott said he would vote in favour of Mrs. May’s proposal to hold a General Election on June 8, a move that she hopes will give her a new mandate allowing her to have the “strongest hand” in Brexit talks.
“Obviously if I get selected [by the Ulster Unionist Party] I will run,” he stated.
“Elections are contentious but I will be putting forward the best case and I will be highlighting the role I’ve played during my time in Westminster.”
The UUP’s new leader Robin Swann reportedly said he is “open” to electoral pacts. Mr. Elliott commented: “Obviously, [the issue of a pact] is for senior party leaders to decide. The key is to maximise representation in Westminster, especially during the current time when Brexit negotiations are ongoing. We have no Executive and no Assembly, therefore it’s more important than ever to have strong representation in Westminster. A deal of co-operation is possible.”
It is generally expected that the ongoing talks process at Stormont, aimed at forming a devolved government, will be distracted by the looming general election.
“The talks were on life support anyway,” said Mr. Elliott. “Unfortunately Sinn Féin were reluctant to get into any real negotiations to manage a deal and this election will more than likely hinder the process further.”
Mr. Elliott sees no issue with the possibility of entering a pact in a general election while running against the DUP in an Assembly election. He stated: “The possibility of an Assembly election is very much up in the air – that’s a matter for the Secretary of State James Brokenshire. But if it did happen, I don’t see how a pact would be such a huge issue. They are about two different issues and two different parliaments.”
Michelle Gildernew welcomed the news of a general election by tweeting: “Activists in Fermanagh South Tyrone chomping at the bit this morning. We’ll be fighting for the return of this historic seat!”
She said her party “has been on an election footing since the Assembly election” because there is “quite a bit of uncertainty” about the ongoing talks at Stormont.
She blamed the DUP of not “engaging as much as we would like”, adding:
“Sinn Féin are engaging. We know how important it is to make the institutions work. I don’t see any other option than an election. Until yesterday, we thought it would be another Assembly election but I don’t know what the Westminster election will mean for all that at this stage.”