Could Cameron or Brown have to rely on the DUP?
Does Northern Ireland matter you may ask? Surely itâ€™s just an obscure backwater that elects charming MPâ€™s like Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness? Well maybe, but itâ€™s important in that there are 18 Parliamentary seats in Northern Ireland. At the last election the split was: DUP 9: Sinn Fein 5: SDLP 3: UUP 1.
Sinn Fein does not take its seats, so effectively there are currently 13 MPâ€™s from Northern Ireland at Westminster. When a government has a comfortable majority (e.g. Labour since 1997) Northern Irelandâ€™s MPâ€™s are almost irrelevant. But when a government has a small majority, or no majority, they become more important. So how do the parties line-up?
Democratic Unionist Party. What will Paisley do now he actually has the power to strike a deal with the nationalists? It is easy when you donâ€™t have power to shout about how things should be done. But now he is the leader of the majority community will he deliver a power sharing deal? In my opinion â€“ No. Paisley simply canâ€™t stomach doing a deal with IRA-Sinn Fein as he calls them. So where does the DUP go from here?
Paisley is 80 and will not live for ever (though I am sure he will give it his best shot). The Power struggle in the DUP between the â€˜hardlinersâ€™ and the â€˜even harder hardlinersâ€™ once he departs could be bloody. In the short term the DUP seem safe as the largest unionist party, but things could change when Paisley leaves the helm.
Ulster Unionist Party This governed at Stormont for 50 years before the Troubles however it was soundly beaten at the last general election, and reduced to just 1 MP. Leader Reg Empey has a big job on his hands to rebuild the party, and there is currently internal trouble after the PUPâ€™s David Ervine joined the UUP group in the Assembly. (The PUP are linked to the UVF).
Itâ€™s difficult to see what sort of niche the UUP can carve out for itself in the short term. It will never be more hardline than the DUP, nor could it gain much with a â€˜power sharing nowâ€™ slogan. There is no desire in the unionist community to see Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister (even if the MI6 rumors are true!). Its best tactic could be to wait for Paisley to leave the scene, and for some form of â€˜unionist realignmentâ€™ to take place.
Social Democratic & Labour Party Talk of its demise has (so far) been premature. At the last election there were predictions of wipeout, however the SDLP lost only 1 seat (Newry & Armagh to Sinn Fein). It held its other 2 (Foyle and South Down), and took 1 from the UUP (South Belfast). However, victory in Foyle was due in part to tactical voting from unionists, South Down to Eddie McGradyâ€™s personal vote, and South Belfast to a split unionist vote.
These circumstances will not always be there to save them. With Sinn Fein sounding more moderate, the SDLP could yet face a UUP style wipeout. Its organisation on the ground is reported to be weak and party morale low. The SDLP is in poor health and looks old and tired next to a re-branded Sinn Fein.
Sinn Fein Gone are the days of the broadcasting ban, of Gerry Adams smoking a pipe in public, and of sectarian murders getting in the way of its electioneering. These days the party is trying to present a modern and moderate image – not an armalite to be seen. Sinn Fein is well organised on the ground and has a crop of young â€˜middle classâ€™ activists coming through its ranks.
No one should underestimate the journey that Adams has taken the republican movement on, or his achievement of keeping it more or less united. He is not about to throw that away by easing up on the SDLP now he has them on the run. Sinn Fein will lead the Nationalist community in Northern Ireland for some time to come. An election in the Republic is not far away and it is possible (though unlikely) that Sinn Fein could hold the balance of power.
So what of the next UK General Election? The DUP could win 10 or 11 seats (subject to an electoral pact with the UUP). If Labour or the Tories are just short of an overall majority, could the Big Man hold the balance of power? No need for a formal deal with the Lib Dems when a loose arrangement with Paisley would do. Though Paisley is no fan of power sharing (!), he could help keep a minority government in place for a year or so.
All very hypothetical and unlikely, but remember: The UUP helped John Major during the 90â€™s when his majority was disappearing. In 1979 2 Nationalist MPâ€™s (Gerry Fitt and Frank Maguire) abstained in the vote of no confidence â€“ which Labour by one vote.
Ian Jones is half Welsh, half Northern Irish, and currently living in England. He is not, and never have been a member of any political party.