British prime minister Gordon Brown has today called a general election for May 6th after visiting Buckingham Palace to seek Crown permission to dissolve parliament on April 12th.
Speaking outside his Downing Street residence with his cabinet standing around behind him, Brown opened the month-long campaign for what is one of the most unpredictable elections in Britain for almost two decades.
“It will come as no surprise to all of you and it’s probably the least kept secret of recent years that the queen has kindly agreed to the dissolution of parliament and a general election will take place on May 6,” Mr Brown said.
Opposition Conservative leader David Cameron, addressing party workers on the banks of the river Thames opposite parliament, called it the most important election for a generation. “You don’t have to put up with another five years of Gordon Brown,” he said.
There have been predictions that Labour will likely overall control of the Westminster parliament, resulting in a ‘hung parliament’, with the Liberal Democrats or even smaller parties such as the DUP holding the balance of power.
Brown’s popularity in Britain has recovered somewhat as voters there feel the recession to be ending and have become numbed to casualties in the war in Afghanistan.
An survey for the Guardian suggests that the Tories have yet to establish a firm lead and that Labour could still emerge from the general election with the most MPs.
Whichever party came first, the findings indicate either of them would be forced to rely on Liberal Democrat support. The poll puts Labour on 33 per cent, the Tories on 37 per cent, and the Lib Dems on 21 per cent.
In the North of Ireland, any shift in voting patterns will be closely analysed as a possible harbinger of change. There are a total of 18 Westminster constituencies in the Six Counties.
The entry into the election contest of extreme hardline unionist party, Jim Allister’s Traditional Unionist Voice, has the potential to alter the complexion of the election in unionist constituencies, particularly in the former Paisley heartland of north Antrim.
Cameron’s Conservative party has formed a troubled alliance with Reg Empey’s Ulster Unionists (UCUNF) which has impacted that party’s election preparations. The alliance will struggle to win a single seat.
The nationalist parties are in a tight battle to secure the constituency of South Down, where SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie will face Sinn Fein’s Caitriona Ruane to win the seat being vacated by veteran SDLP stalwart Eddie McGrady.
in the closely fought constituencies of Fermanagh/South Tyrone and South Belfast, Sinn Fein and the SDLP will respectively hope to hold off an unpredictable unionist challenge, while in north Belfast, Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly will hope to push the DUP’s Nigel Dodds.
The launch of all the parties manifestos and full scale campaigning is not expected to start until next week.
PRISONERS END PROTEST
In other news, a protest by republican prisoners at Maghaberry prison has ended.
Twenty-eight prisoners locked themselves into the dining room of the County Antrim jail after Mass on Easter Sunday.
The prison service said the prisoners returned voluntarily to their cells, a move that was observed by members of the Independent Monitoring Board.
Conditions in the jail remain difficult and the atmosphere tense amid a continuing dispute over political status for prisoners aligned to the breakaway IRA groups.
One of the issues that triggered the stand-off was a refusal by prison management to let republicans wear Easter Lilies, the symbol of Ireland’s war dead.