And they’re off. It may be the respectable thing to say you can’t bear another election but I love ‘em.
First we have the circling of unionist wagons. Steve Aitken’s bold assertion that there’d be a UUP candidate standing in all eighteen constituencies probably seemed a good idea at the time – the UUP has to find a separate identity or die – but in double quick-time he was getting his rash words on the end of a fork and eating them. Of COURSE the UUP was always going to stand aside in North Belfast; of COURSE the DUP was going to stand aside in Fermanagh-South Tyrone.
Sinn Féin and the SDLP have, for once, shown a bit of common electoral sense. If you want to give your candidate a chance, you try to persuade the other nationalist party to step aside. And to avoid charges of a ‘sectarian headcount’ (stupidest of phrases), both parties can claim they’re standing aside to prevent another unionist Remainer from going to Westminster as a Tory doormat. Thus, Claire Hanna has been given the go-ahead to win in South Belfast, and she will do. The SDLP may have to re-think their strategy for sharing a bed with Fianna Fail if their most popular party member becomes an MP.
In THE cauldron of Fermanagh/South Tyrone, the SDLP is going to step aside and let Michelle Gildernew do what she does best: drive Tom Elliot mad with frustration as she gallops home with a wafer-thin majority. Elliot’s chances of winning are, of course, enhanced by the DUP graciously dipping out, but we’re talking Tom Elliot here. The kind of man who manages to combine political incompetence with being a surly loser (“Sinn Féin scum”). If the nationalist people of Fermanagh/South Tyrone don’ t elect Michelle, a massive mental-health programme should be established in that region.
Which leave Derry. Or Foyle, since we know that unionists become red-eyed with indignation if you say “Derry”. Colm Eastwood has bet the family farm (his leadership, Virginia – when I say the family farm I mean leadership of the SDLP) that he’ll defeat Eiisha McCallion and reclaim the seat that the SDLP held for so long. A lot of people are saying he’ll do it, too. Not because his presence in the debating chamber of the House of Commons would make any more difference than the presence of an oak-leaf-inscribed spittoon, but it would signal to down-hearted SDLPers that dark political night hasn’t yet quite fallen on their party. It used to be that when Sinn Féin won a seat it stayed won; the local and European elections in the south told a different story. But while Colm will be hell-bent on regaining his seat in the SDLP heartland, don’t count Sinn Féin out yet. Last time they just looooved winning Foyle; this time they’ll throw everything at it bar Barry McElduff, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I saw him sailing into battle as well.
Sinn Féin took a pasting in the south last time out; they’ll be very, very focused on changing that pattern this time.