The role of Northern Ireland in a closely fought election

Friday 10 April, 2015

Results in Northern Ireland could determine the colour of the next UK government.

Across the UK opinion polls, pundits and politicians are anticipating one of the most unpredictable elections in modern history. With increasing speculation about two-party coalitions, three-party coalitions and potential confidence and supply arrangements for a minority Government, the regions are expected to play a crucial role in determining who will enter No. 10 as the UK’s next Prime Minister.

There has been considerable debate about the intentions and impact of the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru and the Democratic Unionist Party in particular.

It is highly possible that on the morning of 8th May the most powerful man in Westminster called Nigel will be the North Belfast MP Nigel Dodds, rather than UKIP’s Mr Farage. As leader of the DUP’s parliamentary party, Mr Dodds is expected to return with eight or nine MPs, possibly even ten on a good night. For the first time in a generation, this could give Northern Ireland MPs a pivotal voice in Westminster, and this has been the core message of the DUP’s general election campaign.

As a socially conservative, pro-business, unionist party there has been an expectation that the DUP would be more willing to back the Tories in a hung parliament, particularly given their position on defence, security, the constitution and law and order. However, the DUP leader and First Minister Peter Robinson said that his party remains open for negotiations with both the Conservatives and Labour. It is widely believed that the DUP were ready for negotiations with both parties in 2010 and, more recently, a visit from Ed Miliband to Northern Ireland fuelled speculation as it took the Labour leader to Mr Dodds’ North Belfast constituency for meetings and engagements.

Having ruled out joining a coalition government, Nigel Dodds, in a recent interview with The Guardian, broadly outlined key priorities for the DUP including scrapping the bedroom tax, a commitment of spending 2% of GDP on defence, securing UK borders and strengthening the Union. The last commitment would effectively rule out DUP support for any potential Labour-SNP arrangement. Full interview here.

Should Labour emerge as the largest party and seek to form a coalition government, Northern Irish support could come instead from the Irish nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) who would be more inclined to sit with Labour in the Commons. The party’s three MPs are all expected to be returned, although its leader, Alasdair McDonnell, is facing a strong challenge from the DUP, Sinn Fein and the cross-community Alliance Party in the South Belfast seat he has held since 2005.

This will be one of the most interesting fights in all of Northern Ireland’s 18 Westminster seats and may come down to how the votes split within and between community blocks. A Sinn Fein-SDLP split in the nationalist vote would benefit the DUP, while a similar fragmentation of the DUP-UUP unionist vote would favour the SDLP incumbent.

Northern Ireland’s largest nationalist party, Sinn Féin, currently holds five constituencies including the hotly-contested Fermanagh and South Tyrone seat which Michelle Gildernew claimed in 2010 having obtained a majority of just four votes. As Irish republicans, Sinn Féin abstains from taking their seats and this should also be factored into the parliamentary arithmetic following the election.

The once dominant Ulster Unionist Party could also be well placed to cause an upset and regain a foothold in the Commons. In 2010, an electoral pact with the Conservative Party under the Ulster Conservative and Unionist – New Force (UCUNF) brand failed to secure a single seat. Given historical links with the Tories and a priority focus on preserving the Union, it is likely that any UUP MPs would align with the Conservatives, particularly if Labour strikes an arrangement with the SNP.

The Liberal Democrat’s sister party in Northern Ireland, the Alliance Party, caused the biggest local upset in 2010 by unseating the First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson who held the East Belfast seat for over 30 years. It will be a fight for them to hold on to the seat in a largely unionist constituency, but the popularity and profile of the incumbent, Naomi Long is on their side. This seat looks to be another extremely close race to watch.

The Conservatives, UKIP and the Green Party are also fielding candidates in Northern Ireland, but they are not expected to win any seats. For them, the build up to May 7th provides a platform to build profile ahead of the next Assembly Election in 2016.

During each election campaign, Northern Ireland’s voters are told by politicians that it is ‘the most important election for a generation’. On this occasion, due to the state of the two main parties in Westminster, these words are ringing truer than ever.