The DUP and a hung Parliament

Not sure if all can get this without subscription – but that’s the Economist’s take on the DUP and a hung parliament. Just in case I’ll paste below the fold:
Northern Ireland

Together we stand
What local politics have to gain from national elections

Friends in needHUNG parliaments are not everyone’s idea of a great outcome to the general election on May 6th. In Northern Ireland, however, plenty of politicians discreetly but fervently hope for just that. Those hoping hardest are in the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which has nine of the province’s 18 seats at Westminster and can realistically expect to hold all or most of them. That might be enough to give the party a much-enhanced influence on events, and at a time when it can use a little bolstering.

Neither Labour nor the Conservatives would rush to recruit the DUP, led by Northern Ireland’s first minister, Peter Robinson (pictured left), should they be short of a House of Commons majority. Founded by the Rev Ian Paisley, the party has a distinctly Protestant tinge and attracts next to no Catholic support. But a bloc of up to nine Democratic Unionists might be of tactical significance to either Gordon Brown or David Cameron in seeking to get legislation through Parliament. And unionists have in the past reached arrangements in the Commons with both Labour (in the 1970s) and the Tories (in the 1990s).

One DUP candidate, Ian Paisley junior, was unusually frank this week in signalling the party’s pragmatism. “We’ll hold out to see what’s in the best interests of Northern Ireland,” he said. “We’re not fettered to either Labour directly or to the Conservatives directly. We can make a value judgment at the end of the election.”

The main parties have other potential allies, of course, not least the Liberal Democrats. The Scottish National Party, with seven MPs in the last parliament, and the Welsh Plaid Cymru, with three, would love to play a role.

In Northern Ireland, though, the DUP is the ally that matters. The five MPs of Sinn Fein, the party of the deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness (shown right), are useless as counters, since ancient republican doctrine prohibits them from taking their Commons seats. The Tories have formed an alliance with the Ulster Unionist Party and are fielding agreed candidates in most constituencies. But this is unlikely to deliver more than a couple of seats at most.

A few months ago the DUP seemed in for a walloping by voters who disapproved of the Swish Family Robinson’s expertise in extracting taxpayer support via expenses, employing relatives and the like, as well as of the sexual scandal involving Mr Robinson’s wife, Iris. But a skilful defensive performance by Mr Robinson saved his leadership and steadied his party. In this he was helped by the fact that, when elections loom, many unionists and nationalists retreat to their laagers, voting primarily to keep the other side out. This tribal imperative means that the parties which share power at Stormont feel free to oppose each other in the Westminster contest—sometimes vehemently—without endangering the Belfast Assembly.

A similar lack of crossover exists between politics and the violence that has never been completely eradicated. This week responsibility for policing and justice was transferred from London to Belfast in what was hailed as the completion of devolution. Dissident republicans marked the occasion by attacking a joint army-MI5 headquarters near Belfast with a car bomb which, purely fortuitously, caused no injuries. Another incendiary device, which did not go off, was discovered a little more than a day later in County Armagh.

It is striking that all parts of the political spectrum are in absolute agreement that political life should not be affected by such bombings. The universal understanding is that the worlds of terrorism and politics must remain sealed off from each other.

Another point of agreement is that there will be shoulder-to-shoulder resistance to any moves by the next Westminster government to make deep cuts in Northern Ireland’s budget. Neither Labour nor the Conservatives have emitted any particularly ominous signals along those lines. But tough decisions must be made, and, if a new government looks set to make them at Belfast’s expense, all the Northern Irish parties will band together in protest, arguing that this could imperil what remains a fledgling settlement.

It all reflects Belfast’s curiously compartmentalised politics: often divided, especially at election time, but in some respects unexpectedly united.

Welsh Nationalist. Rugby Fan. Know a bit about History and Railways…