UK elections: Big jobs on the line in Northern Ireland power play

Voters across 18 constituencies could have big say in make-up of new parliament


On the macro front, the Westminster general election results in Northern Ireland could have a bearing on whether David Cameron or Ed Miliband is the next British prime minister.

On the micro level – although that it is not a description Northern politicians would use – the results could have a bearing on whether and for how long Peter Robinson remains as DUP leader and First Minister. They could also have implications for SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell.

The chief focus for political obsessives who stay up through Thursday night into Friday will probably be who will form the next British government. But the results from the North’s 18 constituencies should also provide drama. Big jobs could be on the line.

Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness has reiterated “without fear of contradiction” that neither Northern Ireland nor the DUP would play any significant role in selecting the next British government.

He could be right but the polls indicate he could be proven wrong. Certainly in Britain, the Conservatives and Labour leaders have been anxious not to do or say anything that would antagonise the DUP.

Moreover, Nigel Dodds, the DUP deputy leader and party leader in the House of Commons, has never been in such demand from the BBC, ITV or the London newspapers. In Britain, there is a real media sense that the DUP votes could count in determining who enters 10 Downing Street.

Robinson and Dodds and the senior DUP people have milked this line hugely throughout the campaign because they believe it gives them an edge over their main unionist opponents, the Ulster Unionist Party. “Why waste a vote on the UUP when a vote for the DUP could give unionists real clout in Westminster” has been the line.

The controversy over the DUP candidate in South Down, Jim Wells, appearing to link same-sex parents to child abuse – remarks for which he quickly apologised – cost him his job as health minister and also triggered demands from some politicians and commentators in Britain that Cameron and Miliband should have no truck with the DUP.

If the DUP is a player, those demands will intensify in volume but the bottom line is if either leader needs those votes they’ll be delighted to get them.

And while these elections in Northern Ireland are important, what will be more pressing when they conclude is to try to break the political stalemate that is stalling the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement. Sinn Féin, in particular, is refusing to countenance welfare changes. It’s an impasse that could wreck the Northern Executive and Assembly.

Balance of power

Ian Paisley

And if McGuinness is wrong in saying the DUP will have no influence at Westminster, then the focus will also turn to Sinn Féin’s abstentionist policy. On the doorsteps, some Sinn Féin candidates have heard complaints about this article of republican faith.

Several young people of a nationalist background, but not necessarily carrying so much nationalist baggage, have queried: “What’s the point of standing for parliament but not sitting in parliament – isn’t that what politics is supposed to be about?”

Whatever the results, it’s unlikely that Gerry Adams or McGuinness will change tack but more questions are being asked.

In the outgoing House of Commons, the DUP had eight seats, Sinn Féin five, the SDLP three, Independent unionists one – Lady Sylvia Hermon, and Alliance one – Naomi Long.

Of the 18 constituencies, there are seven and possibly eight where change is possible. The main spotlight is on East Belfast where Long is battling to hold the seat she sensationally won from Peter Robinson in 2010.

Alliance’s ‘Ginger Ninja’ could do it again, although with unionist parties of every description giving the DUP a free run here the advantage would seem to be with DUP candidate Gavin Robinson.

Nobody knows for sure how long Peter Robinson intends to remain in politics but if his namesake, who is no relation, fails to unseat Long then the First Minister could be minded to bow out quicker than expected.

SDLP leader McDonnell is also under pressure in South Belfast from a range of candidates, primarily DUP junior minister Jonathan Bell and Sinn Féin’s Máirtín Ó Muilleoir who, if he takes sufficient votes from McDonnell, could facilitate a win for Bell. McDonnell has some internal enemies and if he loses South Belfast they are likely to go on the attack.

Interesting contests

Tom ElliottMichelle Gildernew

There are two very interesting contests in Upper Bann and South Antrim where, respectively, DUP incumbents David Simpson and William McCrea are trying to hold off serious challenges from the UUP’s Jo-Anne Dobson and Danny Kinahan, with Catherine Seeley for Sinn Féin also in with a chance in Upper Bann.

Gerry Kelly of Sinn Féin has been closing the gap on Nigel Dodds steadily over the past three Westminster campaigns and could get closer this time, notwithstanding the allegations of sectarianism he faced for recently putting out a leaflet saying there were now more Catholics than Protestants in North Belfast.

In Newry and Armagh, it’s worth watching to see whether SDLP candidate and former All-Ireland medallist with Armagh, Justin McNulty, can make inroads into Sinn Féin’s 8,000-vote majority and whether this can be of some benefit to UUP candidate Danny Kennedy.

In Foyle, Sinn Féin’s Gearóid Ó hEára will attempt to put some pressure on former SDLP leader Mark Durkan. The remaining 10 constituencies seem predictable with all outgoing MPs expected to be returned.

So, when we are all bleary-eyed on Friday morning, the DUP could have between five and 10 seats; Sinn Féin five or six seats; the SDLP one, two or three seats; the UUP none or up to three seats; one Independent unionist and one Alliance.

I think there will be just one change, Naomi Long unable to resist the unionist bloc challenge in East Belfast. On Friday morning, therefore, I think it will be: DUP nine, Sinn Féin five, SDLP three and Independent unionist one.

Equally, Northern Ireland elections like to throw up surprises and I’ll be surprised if I’m not surprised by the results.