In 1979, Irish MP Frank Maguire's decision to abstain in the vote of confidence proved pivotal as James Callaghan’s Government was defeated by just one vote.
When the DUP’s then contingent of nine MPs provided the decisive votes needed for the Government, in 2008, to win a vote on the 42-day detention of terror suspects, it demonstrated the impact that, even with a Government with a majority, the dynamics of Northern Ireland’s unique political environment can have on the whole country. Indeed, in 1979, the decision by Independent Republican MP Frank Maguire to abstain in a vote of confidence proved pivotal as James Callaghan’s Government was defeated by just one vote.
With a hung Parliament now a distinct possibility, Henry McDonald, writing in the Guardian, has said that any one of Northern Ireland’s MPs after the election “may shape the overall national outcome of the general election”. In short, what happens in Northern Irelands matters.
In addition to the traditional electoral battle between the unionists on the one hand, and the republicans on the other, this election will also see a “tribal contest” for the future of unionism itself. With that in mind, the Democratic Unionist Party faces a tough battle.
In December 2007, disillusioned with the decision by Ian Paisley to enter a coalition with Sinn Fein, Jim Allister broke away from the party, to form the new Traditional Unionist Voice party. Its website states that:
“TUV was formed in December 2007 to give voice to Traditional Unionists throughout Northern Ireland who reject unrepentant terrorists at the heart of government and who feel betrayed by those who ushered them into government.”
By last year’s European Elections, having been in existence for less than two years, the TUV were able to secure 13.7 per cent of the votes cast, wholly at the expense of the DUP. As “The Dissenter” blog said, it had “shaken the consensus on which the Belfast Agreement stands or falls”.
It led to fears the DUP would take a hardline stance against the devolution of policing and justice powers, in an effort to regain the support of those unionists who had deserted them in protest over their coalition with Sinn Fein. Fast forward to today, and to some extent, the DUP should be performing well. Peter Robinson’s success in securing an agreement at Hillsborough on the devolution of policing and justice powers in the face of opposition from the Ulster Unionists appeared to be vindicated by a poll for the Northern Ireland Office.
Likewise, the decision by the UUP’s only MP, Lady Sylvia Hermon, to resign from the party over its electoral pact with the Conservatives should provide rich pickings for the DUP, facing a UUP now divided over its links with the Conservatives. However, despite all this, Mr Robinson is a leader under pressure, and polling data suggests that Sinn Fein could be leading the DUP.
The DUP go into the election under fire and in a fragile state. In January, Mr Robinson was forced to step down temporarily to clear his name over what he did or did not know over alleged improprieties in his wife Iris’s financial affairs. This was followed by the news Mrs Robinson had stepped down from her Strangford seat in Westminster, having admitted that she had attempted suicide over an affair she had had with a 19-year-old boy.
Despite being cleared of any wrongdoing, the BBC has since alleged the first minister and his wife had purchased valuable land near their Belfast home at a greatly reduced price in order to avoid paying tax on the sale. Despite being strenuously denied by Robinson, the allegations have led to calls by UUP leader, Sir Reg Empey, himself a minister in the Northern Ireland Executive, for the first minister to resign.
Reacting to the announcement of the election, Mr Robinson had said:
“I will be taking a positive message to the doorsteps and asking the people to vote DUP to keep Northern Ireland moving forward. Whilst other parties are divided and visionless the DUP is offering the electorate a strategy to strengthen Northern Ireland and unionism.“
With four weeks till polling day, the DUP faces a crunch election. The divisions and splits within the UUP over its pact with the Conservatives should play into the DUP’s hands. However, with questions remaining over the future of Peter Robinson, the future direction of unionism remains in doubt. As the Belfast Telegraph concludes:
“If the main unionist party had a battle plan for this election, they tore it up in early January. The DUP leadership face a tough election.“
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