Westminster: Expect the Impossible
Expect the impossible. That’s the lesson which Northern Ireland can give British voters as they help shape the next Westminster government after May 7.
Remember the late Reverend Ian Paisley’s “Never, never, never” speech in the wake of the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement and the Democratic Unionist Party’s “Smash Sinn Fein” council campaign? In 2007, Paisley and his party formed a power-sharing executive with Sinn Fein.
Over the years since its formation in 1905, Sinn Fein has systematically dumped abstentionism towards taking seats in Dublin’s Dail and Stormont.
Sinn Fein is in government in the Northern Ireland Assembly and predicted to be a minority coalition partner in the next government in Leinster House.
So take with a pinch of Irish salt statements that the Scottish Nationalists would never enter a coalition with Labour, or that Unionist MPs from Northern Ireland would only align with the Tories.
The DUP will not wish to repeat the same disastrous mistake as the rival Ulster Unionist Party when the latter entered an election pact with the Conservatives in Northern Ireland and ended up with no MPs.
Unionists will also be mindful it was Tory Prime Minister Edward Heath who axed the original UUP-dominated Stormont Parliament in 1972, and Margaret Thatcher who signed the Hillsborough Agreement in 1985, giving the Republic its first major say in Northern Irish affairs since 1921. Another Tory PM, John Major, signed the 1993 Downing Street Declaration which had the long-term impact of undermining traditional Ulster Unionism and signalled the political end of then UUP boss Jim Molyneaux.
So if the DUP’s expected eight MPs do not pussyfoot with the Tories, could they cosy up to Ed Miliband to ensure a Labour-led coalition? Ironically, such a scenario could work to the DUP’s advantage.
Since becoming the main Unionist party in 2003, the DUP has faced constant criticism that it has virtually abandoned the loyalist working class, which since the party’s formation in 1971 was the traditional heartland.
To become top dog in Unionism, the DUP had to eat substantially into the UUP’s core middle-class Protestant vote. It achieved this by slowly turning its back on working-class Protestants.
Sinn Fein, however, did not make the same mistake. It ate into the SDLP’s middle-class Catholic vote while at the same time, keeping its traditional working-class base on board.
A pact with Miliband could well be the path which the DUP follows to win back working class Protestants.
If the DUP can enter an executive at Stormont with Sinn Fein, it can side with Labour at Westminster. That could even prompt Labour to change its mind on a pact with the SNP and Plaid Cymru – especially if it keeps the Tories and UKIP out of government.
There have been suggestions that the DUP has put a £1 billion pound price tag of additional funding for Northern Ireland for the support of its MPs.
And the fact that the DUP could be a kingmaker after May 7 will also put pressure on Sinn Fein to ditch its long-held refusal to take its Commons seats over the royal oath.
That said, Sinn Fein’s priority is not just to hold on to its five MPs in Northern Ireland, but also to use the British election as a springboard for the expected 2016 general election in the Republic of Ireland, where the party needs to break through the 20-seat barrier to stand any chance of being included in a coalition.
The DUP could also be a powerbroker at Westminster to encourage Labour to out David Cameron.
The DUP may also count on the support of North Down Independent MP Sylvia Hermon, who quit the UUP over the party’s link with the Tories. Her strong personal vote in the constituency should ensure her victory in May.
All this could have knock-on consequences in the Republic. Currently, no one wants Sinn Fein as a coalition partner –t he scars of the Irish Civil War of 1921-22 still run deep. But if the DUP can share power with Sinn Fein, why can’t Fine Gael or Fianna Fail in Dublin?