Northern Ireland parties cast post-election eye

A polling station
A polling station

With the prospect of another hung parliament looming large, Northern Ireland parties hope to be punching above their weight when it comes to the post-election shakedown.

The Democratic Unionists in particular have been keen to highlight the potential opportunities that may materialise if Labour or the Conservatives are scrambling for support to form a workable administration.

The DUP, which has ruled out being part of a formal coalition, has claimed it is best placed of the region’s parties to exert influence in a less formalised arrangement if the outcome is as tight as some pollsters predict.

Not only is it the most well-represented in the Commons with eight seats, but Sinn Fein - the second largest Westminster party with five seats - does not take up its voting rights and has insisted it has no intention of reversing its century-old abstentionist policy come May, despite some speculative media reports suggesting a deal with Labour had been mooted.

The SDLP won three seats in 2010, but with its traditional alignment with the Labour Party it would not have the DUP’s flexibility to negotiate with both David Cameron and Ed Miliband.

Alliance Party MP Naomi Long and independent Lady Sylvia Hermon are the region’s other two incumbents.

But before minds turn to post-election number-crunching, there are still 18 seats to be fought over and won in Northern Ireland.

The lines between Westminster and the Assembly will be blurred on the campaign trail, with many voters choosing where to place their ‘x’ based on an assessment of the achievements of the powersharing Executive in Belfast.

As such, the outworkings of December’s already stumbling Stormont House Agreement, which was heralded as resolving a range of disputes between the five Executive parties, will likely be as much a factor on the hustings as Westminster specific issues.

The 2015 campaign has already brought one of the most far-reaching pro-Union pacts in recent memory, with the DUP and Ulster Unionists agreeing to back single candidates in four constituencies.

While the nationalist SDLP has rebuffed Sinn Fein overtures to form a similar allegiance in response, the development is likely to see debates even more polarised along the well-worn green and orange constitutional lines.

Though the DUP and UUP are co-operating to an extent not witnessed in decades, that is not indicative of harmony within the broader unionist family.

Both main unionist parties face the prospect of losing votes to the right, in the shape of non-Executive parties Ukip and the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV).

Both are highly critical of the Stormont administration and the 100,000 votes they polled in last year’s European election points to a perception held by many unionists and loyalists that the peace process has not treated them fairly.

Ironically, the most high-profile battle is not set to be an orange and green showdown, or a wrestle within unionism - it will be the bitter fight between the DUP and the cross community Alliance Party in Belfast East.

Mrs Long registered a sensational upset in 2010 when she captured the seat from long-time sitting MP and Stormont First Minister Peter Robinson at a time when the DUP leader was hit by the fallout from a scandal about his wife’s private life.

Since then, the DUP has been intent on recovering both the seat and its reputational damage in the constituency, with Alliance no less determined to maintain and build on its breakthrough into Westminster politics.

Forget two months, it has essentially been a five year campaign in east Belfast - an intense battle that has cast its shadow over other political disputes that have played out since 2010, most notably the loyalist protests over the Alliance-supported decision by Belfast City Council in 2012 to limit the flying of the Union flag over City Hall.

Mrs Long’s task to retain the seat became all the harder when the UUP announced it would not run and instead back DUP candidate Gavin Robinson as part of the pact deal.

Another count that is sure to drawn attention is Fermanagh and South Tyrone, primarily because last time round it was the UK’s most tightly contested constituency.

Sinn Fein MP Michelle Gildernew won by just four votes in 2010 against an agreed unionist unity candidate.

In May she will face off against another of the latest batch of pro-Union pact candidates - the well-known former Ulster Unionist leader Tom Elliott.