Moderates facing early Westminster exit?

John Coulter was pessimistic over the fate of the moderate parties in his Daily Star predictions yesterday. According to him, between them, they will only have Eddie McGrady’s Fortress Downpatrick. Writing in the Blanket, he explains why he thinks Trimble has lost so much ground from an apparent position of strength in 1998 when the Belfast Agreement was signed.Irish Daily Star political column: DR JOHN COULTER predicts the SDLP and UUP will have some serious thinking to do after 5 May.

The outcome of the General Election in Northern Ireland is almost a foregone conclusion with Gerry Adams’ Sinn Fein and Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionists further consolidating their positions as the majority voices for their respective communities.

What Thursday will decide is the strength of the victories and the scale of defeat for their rivals in the SDLP and Ulster Unionists.

The foundation of the Good Friday Agreement – the SDLP and UUP always being the main voices for nationalism and unionism – has now become its Achilles’ heel. It is somewhat ironic that the two parties who built the Belfast Agreement are the ones facing electoral meltdown on 5 May because of it.

In this scenario, there is the nightmare emerging for moderate nationalism and unionism that it could be left with a single seat each in the Commons, with both Trimble losing his Upper Bann seat, and Durkan unable to retain former leader John Hume’s Foyle seat.

As for the SDLP, South Down stalwart Eddie McGrady looks the only safe bet to hold off the powerful Sinn Fein electoral bandwagon. If Durkan loses to Sinn Fein’s Mitchel McLaughlin, the former should also be replaced as SDLP leader by the tough-talking deputy leader Dr Alisdair McDonnell.

Given Sinn Fein’s claim to being the only truly all-Ireland party, the SDLP would have no other choice but to formally merge with Fianna Fail to have any relevance in Northern politics.

Dishing out an electoral annihilation to the SDLP would also position Sinn Fein strongly for major gains in the Republic’s expected General Election next year.

With their political rivals effectively eliminated, both Sinn Fein and the DUP could then implement a deal which would see the legislative power-sharing Stormont Executive and Assembly restored.

Whilst a deal could have been put in place last November, it was in the interest of both parties to stall the process until after 5 May when they would have further strengthened their electoral positions.

Negotiations are expected to kick off once more after the potentially explosive Marching Season with a new deal expected before Christmas. Given the added size of their mandates, the DUP and Sinn Fein could either recall the November 2003 Assembly or hold fresh elections in December, restoring the Assembly in early 2006.

However, new opportunities may open for Sinn Fein at Westminster if Tony Blair is left with a wafer-thin majority or a hung Parliament. An old-fashioned Lib-Lab pact is unrealistic. Just as the Tories once relied on UUP MPs to keep them in power, so too, might Blair look to some of the 18 Northern Ireland MPs to bolster up his Government.

This could see the emergence of a new pan-nationalist front in the Commons, comprising Sinn Fein along with the Scottish and Welsh nationalists. However, for such a force to become a reality, Sinn Fein would have to abandon its present abstention policy in the Commons.

It would not be an earth-shattering shift for the republican movement. The Commons is the only parliament where Sinn Fein elected representatives do not take their seats. Such a move could go hand-in-hand with any plan for the IRA to pursue a totally political agenda.

It is highly unlikely Blair would look to the DUP as a potential partner in a hung parliament, given the Paisley party’s highly volatile religious fundamentalist wing.

COULTER’S COMMONS CHOICE

Dr John Coulter predicts the 18 Northern MPs who will be returned to Westminster later week:

East Antrim: Sammy Wilson, DUP
North Antrim: Ian Paisley, DUP
South Antrim: Willie McCrea, DUP
East Belfast: Peter Robinson, DUP
North Belfast: Nigel Dodds, DUP
South Belfast: Michael McGimpsey, UUP
West Belfast: Gerry Adams, SF
North Down: Peter Weir, DUP
South Down: Eddie McGrady, SDLP
Fermanagh-South Tyrone: Michelle Gildernew, SF
Foyle: Mitchel McLaughlin, SF
Lagan Valley: Jeffrey Donaldson, DUP
East Derry: Gregory Campbell, DUP
Mid-Ulster: Martin McGuinness, SF
Newry and Armagh: Conor Murphy, SF
Strangford: Iris Robinson, DUP
West Tyrone: Pat Doherty, SF
Upper Bann: David Simpson, DUP