After election, priority shifts to Stormont

Cameron’s overall majority has severely dented Robinson’s DUP prediction

DUP Leader Peter Robinson celebrates with MPs  Nigel Dodds and Gavin Robinson at the Kings Hall in Belfast. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA

DUP Leader Peter Robinson celebrates with MPs Nigel Dodds and Gavin Robinson at the Kings Hall in Belfast. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA

 

With the Westminster election over the challenge in Northern Ireland is to make politics work. The man of the moment is Peter Robinson.

The policies that David Cameron may now be free to pursue could have significant implications for Northern Ireland and indeed for Ireland. There is the question of the stability of the union and there is the matter of whether the UK will remain in the European Union.

These are crucial issues and post-election, these islands could be facing into a period of unsettling flux. Right now the most pressing matter in Northern Ireland is to ensure it continues to have a functioning Stormont administration.

There seemed to be something of a developing consensus in Northern Ireland last night, perhaps born of wishful thinking, that David Cameron’s 331 seats, which gives him a narrow overall majority, has severely dented the prospects of the DUP enjoying any serious sway at Westminster – that it has punctured Robinson’s prediction of the party being “pivotal” in forming the next British government.

Certainly the DUP and Robinson won’t be kingmakers but they could have an important part to play in keeping Cameron on the throne. And if they use their influence wisely they could also have a vital function in saving the North from continuing political deadlock and the very real possibility of the collapse of Stormont.

Dublin and London will be watching carefully to see what Peter does next.

Allowing for the position of speaker and the fact that Sinn Féin won’t take its four seats, then a majority in the 650-seat House of Commons is 323 seats.

Therefore, Cameron has a majority of only eight seats. Some MPs die during the course of parliaments, some get seriously ill, while others get bolshie and start rebelling on issues dear to their hearts. There’s that slightly odd, occasionally daft, right wing of Toryism that always will make life troublesome for Cameron.

Extra cushion

So the British prime minister could be very glad of those eight DUP seats. They would provide him with an extra cushion when the going gets rough. And if the two seats won by Mike Nesbitt’s Ulster Unionist Party also became part of the equation then Cameron would have extra bolster in times of trouble. Independent unionist Lady (Sylvia) Hermon doesn’t naturally lean to the Tories but if there was a good deal on offer then she might even be prepared to plump up that support.

What price would unionists and Robinson in particular seek to extract from Cameron for their support? Robinson has already published his “Northern Ireland plan”, setting out five key headline priorities: “Make Northern Ireland an economic powerhouse; deliver world-class public services for our people; create a society based on fairness and opportunity for everyone; make politics and government work better in Northern Ireland; strengthen the United Kingdom and protect and enhance our British identity.”

That seems all very reasonable as long as unionists don’t decide to start chasing after concessions on polarising issues such as flags and parades.

Most of all what is key is for Robinson to try to use that leverage to exact concessions that could break the current deadlock over welfare reform. With England, Scotland and Wales likely to go into Trident nuclear mode if Northern Ireland gets a special deal on welfare, that will be very difficult. But there is more than one way of skinning a cat: perhaps some monetary deal could be devised that would soften the welfare blows without reshaping Cameron’s overall welfare strategy.

Of course, that all depends on the prime minister being willing to play along with the unionists. But with such a slim majority it could be a question of needs must.

That will all be played out in the coming weeks. Here Northern Ireland has to trust to Robinson’s bargaining skills and that he will deploy them to get the Stormont House Agreement back up and running.

Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness have called for a united front in Northern Ireland against more austerity. They have also indicated they are prepared to dig in on welfare even if it meant the collapse of the Northern Executive and Assembly.

But whether this is dangerous Sinn Féin brinkmanship really isn’t the issue. What’s important is whether Robinson can use his real weight to end the stalemate. Adams and McGuinness can rage against the cuts but it’s Robinson who can do something about them.