Hung parliament could give North MPs real clout


ANALYSIS:Northern Ireland MPs could play a crucial role in the formation of the next British government if there is no overall winner at Westminster

NORTHERN IRELAND unionist MPs could have a huge bearing on whether David Cameron can form the next British government after Thursday. Cameron, who broke through the volcanic ash to visit Belfast yesterday, is said to be firmly against a coalition with the Liberal Democrats and if he doesn’t manage an overall majority he would take his chances with a minority government backed by unionist MPs.

There are 10 outgoing unionist MPs – nine DUP and the independent unionist Lady Hermon who resigned from the Ulster Unionists because of its link-up with the British Tories and who leans towards Labour – and eight nationalists, five Sinn Féin and three SDLP.

Were eight nationalist MPs, plus Lady Hermon, returned who could have a role in maintaining Labour in office, that would also raise questions about Sinn Féin’s abstentionist Westminster policy – particularly if Gordon Brown (or his Labour successor) came knocking with promises of largesse for Northern Ireland.

For the first time the counts in the North will take place through the night and when the work is done, there won’t be any major change in Orange and Green representation at Westminster. But there is an outside possibility that this time 12 unionist MPs would be returned to the House of Commons.

Lady Hermon is cut from Labour material but all the others could be persuaded to vote Cameron into office – in the case of the DUP, if the price is right. Cameron had a dig in Belfast yesterday at the trials and tribulations that have afflicted Peter and Iris Robinson by saying there was “nothing swish about the Conservatives and Unionist family” – a reference to a tabloid headline about the “Swish Family Robinson”.

But, equally, he repeated he would “never be neutral on the union” (while making a recommitment to British-Irish agreements) which means that any fences broken in the heat of election battle can be quickly mended with the DUP if needs must.

So, Northern Ireland could be a player over who forms the next British government. One of the difficulties in forecasting how this election will unfold in the North is trying to get a grip on what people are thinking. So much has happened on the personal front affecting politicians such as the Robinsons and Gerry Adams, and the overall bad publicity about politicians allegedly feathering their own nests, that you wonder could this election see something of a political sea change in Northern Ireland?

Will people be prompted to switch allegiance or to stay at home, or will most hold to the traditional tribal lines? The answer is probably the latter, but you’re never quite sure because it’s been such a curious political year.

The key marginals are Fermanagh-South Tyrone, South Belfast, South Antrim and, perhaps, North Antrim. Michelle Gildernew is trying to defend Fermanagh-South Tyrone against unionist unity candidate Rodney Connor by arguing that the SDLP runner, Fearghal McKinney, is “just a distraction”. McKinney will be squeezed but the SDLP vote would have to collapse and many unionists would have to stay at home to ensure Gildernew is returned. It could go either way but if unionist voters, who know this is the last chance to take back the seat, are motivated then Gildernew could be in trouble.

In Belfast yesterday, Cameron was boosting Sir Reg Empey’s chances in South Antrim against the DUP incumbent, the Rev William McCrea. If McCrea holds on that could be the end of Sir Reg’s leadership of the UUP. If he wins Cameron has virtually promised him a place in a Tory government. It’s very tight but tactical voting by some Alliance, SDLP and possibly even a few Sinn Féin supporters could swing it for Empey.

If Paula Bradshaw of the Tories-Ulster Unionists in South Belfast performs creditably, then Alasdair McDonnell could hold his seat for the SDLP. If not then Jimmy Spratt of the DUP would be favourite. Bradshaw has canvassed the constituency well and thus McDonnell, with some grudging support from Sinn Féin which has withdrawn its candidate Alex Maskey, could shade it.

It’s a toss of a coin in these constituencies. With a full wind from behind, the results could mean two extra seats for unionism.

In North Antrim, Ian Paisley jnr should see off the challenge of Jim Allister of the Traditional Unionist Voice, but Allister nonetheless should do well and lay the foundations for the TUV to gain a small but significant number of seats in next May’s Assembly elections.

And that is what the election is also about: preparing the ground for next year’s Assembly poll. The Ulster Unionist Party will be hoping to increase its overall share of the vote against the DUP. Such an outcome could well create the conditions for a unionist political realignment.

Equally, Sinn Féin will be trying to ensure that the SDLP does not regain any of the ground lost over recent years, while Alliance and the Greens will be hoping to strengthen their case with the electorate next May.

Other constituencies to look out for on polling night are: East Belfast where Trevor Ringland of the Tories-Ulster Unionists and Naomi Long of Alliance argue they can cause a sensation by ousting Peter Robinson – and it would be a sensation; North Belfast where Nigel Dodds should hold the seat for the DUP but where Sinn Féin junior minister Gerry Kelly will be seeking to increase his vote to be a serious threat next time; South Down where new SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie should overcome Sinn Féin’s Caitríona Ruane; Upper Bann where several unionists say Freddie Mercury impersonator Harry Hamilton has a chance against the outgoing David Simpson of the DUP; West Belfast to see if there is any dip in Gerry Adams’s vote; Foyle where former SDLP leader Mark Durkan is seeking to cement his seat against Sinn Féin’s Martina Anderson; North Down where Lady Hermon will be trying to increase or consolidate her vote; and Lagan Valley to see if Daphne Trimble can do any damage to Jeffrey Donaldson’s share of the vote.

Without a hung parliament, Northern Ireland will remain peripheral to the big post-election machinations and haggling at Westminster. If there is a hung parliament then Northern Ireland MPs could have real clout. Every seat, and where it goes, would count.

On a very good day for unionism the results could be: DUP – 10 (or nine if Sir Reg Empey takes South Antrim); Independent unionists – 2 (Rodney Connor who would take the Tory whip, and Lady Hermon who might hold with Labour); Sinn Féin – 4; SDLP – 2.

In the marginals, it’s almost a lottery but I hesitantly think a more likely outcome would be: DUP – 8; Conservatives-Ulster Unionists – 1 (Reg Empey in South Antrim); Independent unionists – 2 (as above); Sinn Féin – 4 (losing out in Fermanagh-South Tyrone); SDLP – 3.