The General Election in Northern Ireland… (made simple)

The General Election in Northern Ireland… (made simple)

The politics of Northern Ireland is still very much divided by sectarian allegiances. Since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 only one seat has changed hands between Republican and Unionist parties (Belfast South was gained by the Social Democratic and Labour Party from the Ulster Unionist Party). Given these keenly felt sectarian divisions it comes as

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The politics of Northern Ireland is still very much divided by sectarian allegiances. Since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 only one seat has changed hands between Republican and Unionist parties (Belfast South was gained by the Social Democratic and Labour Party from the Ulster Unionist Party). Given these keenly felt sectarian divisions it comes as little surprise that there are unlikely to be many, if any, changes come the May election.

It seems odd, then, that the elections in Northern Ireland could be the most relevant to the makeup of a government for years. Only local parties can possibly win in any of the 18 seats up for grabs, but with a two party coalition looking increasingly unlikely the Northern Irish parties could find themselves kingmakers. As we edge closer to Election Day it looks steadily more probable that David Cameron might be on the phone to Belfast, attempting to keep himself in government.

Who are the major parties?

Democratic Unionist Party: The DUP are the largest party in Northern Ireland and will probably finish the election with eight seats. They are overtly unionist, and find most of their support in Protestant areas. Given that they have the most seats, the DUP are the most likely to form a coalition with one of the major parties. Although traditionally allied to the Tories, their leader Peter Robinson said he would be open to discussing a coalition with Labour after the election. If they were to form a coalition or prop up a minority government they would ask for more money from Westminster for Northern Ireland, and would refuse any coalition ivolving the SNP due to their Unionist beliefs.

Sinn Fein: Sinn Fein, which translates to “ourselves”, are staunch Republics and currently have five MPs, although none of them take their seats at Westminster. As Irish nationalists Sinn Fein MPs do not take their seats in Parliament because it would require them to take an Oath of Allegiance to the British monarch. However, if the DUP were to make an agreement to uphold a minority government, Sinn Fein might be forced to sit in the Commons to counter the Unionist influence in Parliament.

Social Democratic Labour Party: Unlike Sinn Fein, the nationalist SDLP will take its 3 seats in the new Parliament. Obviously their influence in a coalition would be much smaller than the DUP, although they would also make Northern Ireland their priority and fight the Unionist influence. It’s also worth noting they already now informally accept the Labour line on nearly all votes.

Alliance: The only party with a neutral stance to the unionism and nationalism debate that holds a seat at Westminster, although they are unlikely to retain an MP.

Seats to watch out for:

Belfast East – This is about the only seat that is worth watching at all. A recent poll conducted by the Belfast Telegraph predicts that no other constituency will change hands in 2015. This was Alliance’s first General Election win and the support they garnered last time was largely in protest of Peter Robinson. Robinson is still the head of the DUP, but lost the seat in the wake of controversies involving his wife lending £50,000 to her lover and improper dealings with property developers. Naomi Long took the seat from Robinson and saw Alliance increase their percentage of the vote by 26%, but it is unlikely she will retain it. Peter Robinson will not contest the seat in May and Gavin Robinson (no relation) will stand instead, and the polls point to the DUP taking the seat back.

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