DUP could hold the keys to 10 Downing Street

Westminster general election campaign cranks into gear in Northern Ireland

British prime minister David Cameron and his wife Samantha look at weapons during their visit to the ‘Game of Thrones’ television set in Belfast on Tuesday. Photograph: Reuters/Kirsty Wigglesworth/Pool

British prime minister David Cameron and his wife Samantha look at weapons during their visit to the ‘Game of Thrones’ television set in Belfast on Tuesday. Photograph: Reuters/Kirsty Wigglesworth/Pool

 

British prime minister David Cameron’s flying visit to Northern Ireland on Tuesday helped to crank up public interest in the Westminster general election.

With just four weeks to go until polling day, the campaign has yet to ignite in the North, even though those elected could determine whether it is Cameron or Labour leader Ed Miliband who gets the keys to 10 Downing Street after May 7th. The campaign in the North will certainly get livelier and there are some interesting battles to be fought.

The current indications are that Britain is facing into a hung parliament. Neither the pundits nor the polls can predict who will win the election at this stage, which means that the DUP in particular could be kingmaker when it comes to the formation of the next British government.

The current state of play in the House of Commons with regard to Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies is that the DUP has eight seats; Sinn Féin has five; the SDLP has three; Alliance has one; and there is one Independent unionist, Lady (Sylvia) Hermon in North Down.

Senior Sinn Féin figures, such as Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, have insisted that even the possibility of holding the balance of power at Westminster would not persuade them to abandon their abstentionist policy.

The SDLP has a reasonable chance of holding on to its three seats and is a sister party to Labour, which means its support in the Commons should go to Miliband unless leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell decides to break a 45-year-old connection.

Therefore, for the moment at least, the only band of politicians from the North who are open to wooing are First Minister Peter Robinson and his DUP colleagues.

The courtship has been continuing for several months now, with both Cameron and Miliband keen to show their interest and keep DUP politicians sweet.

Robinson, who is not standing at the election, says the DUP does not want to be part of the next British government, but if the votes of his Westminster MPs are required, then either Labour or the Tories will have to pay a price for them.

The DUP leader, in his “Northern Ireland plan”, sets 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.”

NI Elections 2010

100 demands

For example, Sinn Féin would not be happy with the demand to remove allowances from parties who “refuse to sit in the House of Commons” or with the call for a ban on donations from outside the UK. Both Sinn Féin and the SDLP, and possibly the Irish Government, would have suspicions about precisely what “protection in law for the official display of the union flag and the symbols of our nation” might mean.

They might also have misgivings that the demand to “work to ensure disputes around parades and protests are resolved” is not meant quite as innocently as it is worded. In Dublin also, there will be concern at how gung-ho the DUP appears to be about the UK exiting from Europe.

In a wider context, there will be some anxiety that if the DUP helps return Cameron to power, then a beholden prime minister will become more Orange-tinted in how he views Northern Ireland politics. Again the issues of parades and flags come to mind.

But that’s all in the area of big-picture politics. And it must be remembered, too, that when this election is out of the way, the priority will be to try to end the stasis again afflicting politics in Northern Ireland because of the welfare reform logjam.

In the meantime, it’s at local level where the invigorating electoral blood-sport politics will be waged.

The main battleground in this election is East Belfast. This is a clash of DUP pride and Alliance doggedness. The DUP is seeking to regain the constituency after the Alliance Party’s Naomi Long sensationally won it from Peter Robinson in 2010.

The Ulster Unionist Party has entered an election pact with the DUP in four constituencies – East Belfast, South Belfast, North Belfast and Fermanagh South Tyrone – and is giving former DUP Belfast lord mayor Gavin Robinson a solo run against Long. It’s a predominantly unionist constituency and the arithmetic is against Long. But then again the numbers were very much against her, too, when she defeated Peter Robinson five years ago.

Quid pro quo

Tom ElliottMichelle Gildernew

In South Belfast, SDLP leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell is facing a nationalist challenge from a strong Sinn Féin candidate, former Belfast lord mayor Máirtín Ó Muilleoir. The DUP junior minister Jonathan Bell feels that the SDLP-Sinn Féin focus could allow him to slip through and cause a surprise.

In North Belfast, Sinn Féin’s Gerry Kelly has been trying for three elections to wrestle this seat from the DUP’s Nigel Dodds. Kelly has reduced the deficit from 6,400 votes in 2001 to 2,200 in 2010, but the free run the UUP is giving Dodds this time could ensure that the DUP deputy leader comes home again. However, if a substantial number of SDLP voters were to shift to Kelly, it could be a close contest.

Other interesting constituencies include South Antrim, where DUP stalwart the Rev William McCrea is under some pressure from the UUP’s Danny Kinahan; Upper Bann, where Sinn Féin’s Catherine Seeley believes she has a chance of causing an upset against the DUP’s David Simpson; and Newry and Armagh, where Mickey Brady, running for Sinn Féin instead of outgoing MP Conor Murphy, is facing a challenge from former Armagh All-Ireland-winning footballer Justin McNulty of the SDLP.

Otherwise, the constituencies seem pretty predictable, but then again every election in Northern Ireland tends to throw up a surprise or two.

Before leaving Northern Ireland on Tuesday, David Cameron advised The Irish Times not be exercised about the prospect of a hung parliament. “Don’t be,” he said, “we can do it.” Still, he knows that those DUP votes could yet be crucial to him or his chief opponent, Ed Miliband. Cameron refused to speculate on what would happen if he doesn’t achieve a majority. But he did say: “If I fall short, you can ask me afterwards.”

Before flying out, Cameron met several of the Conservatives who are running in 16 of the North’s 18 constituencies. Tories are thin on the ground here, with the result that 11 of those candidates were parachuted in from England and Scotland, including the first Sikh to stand in a Westminster election in Northern Ireland, the turbanned Amandeep Singh Bhogal.

Guess what question he was regularly asked while canvassing in Upper Bann? Correct. “Are you a Catholic Sikh or a Protestant Sikh?”