Unionists face new scenario in hung parliament

Regardless of who won in the debate between the British party leaders last Thursday, the outcome points to one clear conclusion: there will be a hung parliament in Britain.

Most polls show that Liberal Democrats leader Nick Clegg held his own and did not lose the advantage he gained after the first debate. Those polls also show Gordon Brown’s Labour Party either in third place or on level-pegging with the Liberals.

However, the vagaries of the winner-takes-all British system mean Labour will still emerge with the most seats in the 650-seat parliament, but anywhere between 40 and 65 short of an overall majority. That outcome indicates both good and bad news for Northern Ireland.

A hung parliament also seems to be at the forefront of the calculations of the North’s leaders if their first debate, also last Thursday night, was anything to go by. On the face of it, there seemed to be two debates - one between Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams and the new SDLP leader, Margaret Ritchie, and the other between the two unionist leaders, Peter Robinson and Reg Empey.

On closer inspection, both debates were really about one topic: who offers the best option in a hung parliament? Ritchie repeatedly pointed out that Sinn Fein’s abstentionist policy meant the party couldn’t pull its weight at Westminster in crucial votes.

Gerry Adams countered that he and deputy first minister Martin McGuinness negotiate directly with the British prime minister. He called it ‘active abstention’ and contrasted that with the SDLP, which has a poor attendance record at Westminster. ‘‘Lazy abstention,” said Adams.

For their part, the two unionist leaders argued about who had the better strategy in the event of no overall majority.

Robinson was scathing about Empey’s link with the Conservative Party, which ties him to the party most likely to introduce swingeing cuts.

Robinson argued for a strong team of Democratic Unionist Party MPs who can maximise the power of their votes at Westminster by offering them to the highest bidder.

Whatever the merits of the various approaches, the role of the North’s MPs may prove to be much overblown by the party leaders, particularly the two unionists.

First, Empey is likely to be the only member of his Ulster Unionist Party to be elected.

Secondly - and most importantly - the thinking of the four leaders seems to hark back to days when Northern Ireland MPs held the balance of power between two large blocs.

That position is no longer likely. At present, all opinion polls point to a sea change in British politics. The current poll of polls shows the Liberals with 102 seats and either the Conservatives or Labour needing their support to form a government.

Besides, the Scottish Nationalists and Plaid Cymru are also asking Scottish and Welsh voters for support in the expectation of a hung parliament. Devolved Britain is a different place.

The last fortnight’s developments in British politics have offered much comfort to Northern nationalists and to the Irish government, which has been discreetly silent on the matter. Memories go back to the last British hung parliament in 1974, the year a weak Labour government stood by and allowed the Ulster Workers Council strike to bring down the power-sharing executive.

People more readily remember the early 1990s when John Major’s chronically weak government was in hock to the Ulster Unionists. They supported him against Conservative right-wingers in controversial votes about the European Union as long as he made no concessions to republicans on the peace process. The result was a delay in the final IRA ceasefire until Labour came to government in 1997.

This time there was considerable unease about remarks Conservative leader David Cameron made about the importance of the union. They seemed to contradict crucial statements his Conservative predecessors had made about Britain having no selfish, strategic or economic interest in Ireland and a willingness to accept unification if the people wanted it.

The concern was that a weak Conservative government would give in to unionist pressure to change aspects of the Good Friday Agreement. That concern seems to have dissipated for two reasons.

First, and most obviously, because it looks as if there will not be a Conservative government, weak or otherwise. Secondly, and more remarkably, given his record, Robinson - who is likely to lead eight MPs back to Westminster - has not threatened to use his bargaining power to alter any arrangements agreed most recently at Hillsborough.

Instead, Robinson has said repeatedly that his priority, if he has any sway in a hung parliament, would be to ensure that the annual Northern Ireland block grant of 10.8 billion euro from Westminster would not be cut. The grant is reckoned to be worth 22,000 euro to every family with two children in the North .

This stance reveals the true priority of the North’s party leaders, namely the assembly elections next year. The powers wielded in the assembly mean that MPs at Westminster are now very much the ‘B team’.

It is in the interests of both the dominant partners, DUP and Sinn Fein, to have a strong, stable assembly and executive operating with maximum funding from Westminster.

As a result, this must be the first Westminster election in living memory when the main unionist party did not place securing the union in the forefront of its manifesto.

Changed times indeed.

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