With the electoral landscape unlike anything seen before, both Labour and the Conservatives should also be looking at the possibility of a deal with the unionists
“In the end you can always do a deal with an Ulsterman, but it’s not the way to run a modern, sophisticated society.”
These were the words of the former chancellor Kenneth Clarke on the eve of the last election, responding to the news that the Democratic Unionist Party would be prepared to form a coalition with the Conservatives if they found themselves just short of a majority in the House of Commons.
Five years on, and with the electoral landscape unlike anything seen before, for both Labour and the Conservatives, the potential need to ‘do a deal with an Ulsterman’ is one of a number of scenarios that they should be planning.
The DUP’s leader in Westminster Nigel Dodds has made clear that his party could work with either David Cameron or Ed Miliband following various degrees of wooing by the two party leaders.
It is against this background that Unionist attempts to boost their number of seats in Northern Ireland should be watched closely.
In 2010, results saw the DUP take 8 of the 18 seats up for grabs in Northern Ireland, followed by Sinn Fein on five, the SDLP on three and the Alliance on one. In North Down, Lady Sylvia Hermon took her seat as an independent, having left the Ulster Unionists in protests over its partnership with the Conservatives.
Within these results however are a number that Unionists hope to retake, and are more likely to should the UUP and DUP succeed in striking some sort of unity deal.
In Fermanagh and South Tyrone for example Rodney Connor, an independent supported by both the DUP and UUP, lost the seat to Sinn Fein by just four votes.
In Belfast East, DUP leader Peter Robinson was left somewhat embarrassed after he lost his seat to the Alliance’s Naomi Long by just under 2,000 votes.
In North Belfast too, a Unionist Unity candidate would clearly bolster the chances of the DUP’s Nigel Dodds retaining his seat which, in 2010, he won with a majority of less than 3,000 over Sinn Fein.
With so many seats in play for Unionists, it is little wonder that the past few weeks and months have seen a number of pronouncements by the DUP and UUP about the need for deals to be struck in certain seats.
Last month however, the prospects of a unity candidate in East Belfast slimmed greatly with the Ulster Unionists choosing to field former Lord Mayor of Belfast Gavin Robinson in what is the DUP’s main target.
Last month, polling conducted by Lucid Talk for the Belfast Telegraph gave the DUP a slim lead over the Alliance. It put Gavin Robinson on 21.2 per cent and Naomi Long on 17.7 per cent.
With the don’t knows and non-voters excluded, the gap increases to 34.4 per cent for DUP and 28.7 per cent for Alliance. Significantly, this poll gave the DUP a lead, even with the UUP included in the mix.
In South Belfast as well, where SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell has a majority of just under 6,000, the DUP’s decision to field Jonathan Bell, a junior minister in the Office of the First, and deputy first minister at Stormont, all but ended any prospect of a unity candidate in a seat that the Ulster Unionists had had their eyes on.
This leaves the prospect of deals in North Belfast and Fermanagh and South Tyrone.
Speaking over the weekend to the BBC, UUP leader Mike Nesbitt called on the DUP to focus on negotiations ‘behind closed doors’, declaring that the DUP would not be able to use the media to ‘intimidate’ him ‘into changing tack’.
Nesbitt concluded that his offer of ‘the DUP standing in North Belfast and the UUP having a clear run in Fermanagh-South Tyrone’ remained firmly on the table.
The DUP’s Finance minister Simon Hamilton meanwhile declared on the Sunday Politics that the prospect of a deal was a ‘once in a generation’ opportunity and that ‘work needs to continue over the next number of days on a few critical seats where we think we can actually maximise a return for unionists.’
The question now however, is whether the prospects of a deal, this close to the election, have run out of time. David Cameron and Ed Miliband, as they look at the potential for a boost to the ranks of unionist MPs as potential partners, will surely be hoping this is not the case.
Ed Jacobs is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward. Follow him on Twitter
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