Westminster Balance of Power
Deaglán de Bréadún
We have long experience of Northern Ireland MPs holding the balance of power, or part of it, at Westminster. Back at the end of the 1970s, Labour really annoyed nationalists by conceding extra House of Commons places to placate the Unionists.
Then, if memory serves, it was the abstention of Gerry Fitt on a crucial vote that led to the general election of 1979 which brought in 11 years of Margaret Thatcher with all that that entailed, for good or ill, in the North – her stance on the hunger-strikes (ill), the Anglo-Irish Agreement (good), etc. (Fitt attended the House of Commons of course – he was not an abstentionist in that sense.)
Back in the early 1990s, David Trimble and his UUP colleagues held back John Major from indulging his enthusiasm for the incipient peace process.
Now it looks as if a hung parliament could be on the cards and, who knows, the North’s MPs could once again be in the driving seat. Nationalists are at a disadvantage in this context, since the Sinn Fein MPs do not take their seats on principle.
Abstentionism is a longstanding article of faith for Irish republicans and it does not look as if this is going to change. So once again the unionists are the most likely to hold the whip hand.