The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) in Northern Ireland has rejected the offer of a nationalist electoral pact with Sinn Fein, describing the idea as “sectarian”.
The SDLP and Sinn Fein are the two leading nationalist parties in the province, supporting a united Ireland and appealing mainly to Catholic voters.
The SDLP's attitude provoked an angry response from Sinn Fein, who claim that nationalist voters support the idea.
The dispute follows a controversy in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, where the two main unionist parties, who attract mainly Protestant voters, have agreed to back a "unionist unity" candidate, Rodney Connor.
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), have withdrawn their own candidates in the constituency to support Connor, who they hope will unseat the Sinn Fein MP, Michelle Gildernew.
The unionist deal was described as “sectarian” both by nationalists and by cross-community parties, such as the Alliance Party and the Greens. They point out that the deal implies that voters' views on the union must always come ahead of their views on other issues, such as the economy, education, health or the environment.
In response to the unionist deal, Sinn Fein urged the SDLP to withdraw in Fermanagh and South Tyrone to give them a clear run against Connor and ensure that the nationalist vote is not divided. In return, Sinn Fein offered to withdraw in Belfast South, which is expected to be a close fight between the SDLP and the DUP.
But the SDLP were quick to reject Sinn Fein's offer, insisting that “you cannot build a shared future on the basis of narrow, sectarian electoral pacts”.
In a letter to the Sinn Fein President, Gerry Adams, SDLP Leader Margaret Ritchie pointed out that “only last week, the SDLP, your own party and others took a strong stand against a unionist electoral pact. I believe that both my party and yours described the pact as ‘sectarian’.”. She added that a nationalist pact would “put my party and yours in precisely the same place” as the DUP and UUP.
But Sinn Fein's Michelle Gildernew, who may lose Fermanagh and South Tyrone to the “unionist unity” candidate, insisted that the proposal for a pact was a “direct response from demands of the voters on the doorsteps”.
She said that, “I have to say that I was met with a mixture of anger, dismay and disappointment at the decision of the SDLP to reject this initiative without even the courtesy of a meeting. Margaret Ritchie now needs to come to Fermanagh and South Tyrone and explain to the nationalist community why she has rejected this initiative and why she wants to give a leg up to a unionist Tory.”
The situation is further complicated by the alliance between the Conservative Party in Britain and the UUP. Their candidates are standing in Northern Ireland as “Conservative and Unionist”, but the Tories have avoided endorsing Rodney Connor, perhaps for fear of appearing sectarian.
Sinn Fein and the SDLP both support a united Ireland but differ on both methods and policy. SDLP MPs take up their seats at Westminster, whereas Sinn Fein MPs refuse to do so, due to the requirement to swear allegiance to the British monarch.
Sinn Fein has historically been linked to the use of violence to resist the union with Britain, although they now make clear that they are committed to a peaceful path. They form the second largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly and are thus the second major partner in the power-sharing government with the DUP.
The SDLP have always rejected violent methods and seek a united Ireland based on the consent of the majority of people in the North.