Northern Ireland could play rare role in British elections: kingmaker

With neither the Conservatives nor Labour likely to win a majority in the May 7 elections, a coalition is almost certainly in the cards – and Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party a possible partner.

Cathal McNaughton/Reuters/File
Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) deputy leader Nigel Dodds speaks at the party's policy conference in the village of Templepatrick, northern Ireland, in late March. The DUP is expected to top the polls in Northern Ireland and get 10 Westminister seats, with a possibility of it being a key party to Labour or the Conservatives if there is a hung parliament.

As Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron and Labour leader Ed Miliband battle it out in the run-up to the May 7 British general election, their titanic traditional parties have been challenged by new faces.

Not only has the traditional third party, the Liberal Democrats, been engaged in the fray with the two leaders. They've also had to debate groups often considered too small to bother with: the United Kingdom Independence Party, the Scottish and Welsh Nationalists, and the Green Party.

The field is so open – neither Labour nor the Conservatives are tipped to form a government alone – that Northern Ireland’s 18 seats in the London parliament could hold the key. Still, Mr. Cameron and Mr. Miliband might find the benefits of such a partnership offset by the high costs.

On a gray April Saturday in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter district there is little sign of election mania: no canvassers, no posters and those milling around appear more interested in the chichi restaurants than debating fiscal policy or immigration. In this Northern Ireland is surely much like everywhere else in the UK.

Since 1921, Northern Ireland has been disconnected from British politics. The region's two major parties, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin, are both rooted deeply in the long struggle over Northern Ireland's future, and whether it stays a part of Britain or joins the rest of the island in the Irish Republic.

Fiercely nationalist Sinn Féin has long refused to take its seats in Westminster, seeing it as a foreign, occupying parliament. Yet in the republic, the party is widely tipped as a contender to join the next government in 2016. 

The DUP is expected to win at least 8 seats in the British election, and with the growth of the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) expected to severely damage Labour’s prospects of forming a government, it could figure strongly in coalition negotiations.

Relying on the DUP would be tricky for both Labour and the Conservatives, not least because of the DUP’s socially conservative agenda.

Gay rights standoff

The DUP, a coalition of blue-collar, often pro-labor, voters and rural evangelical Christians, has proved a remarkably stable formation since it elbowed out the Ulster Unionist Party in the early 2000s. Maintaining British rule in Northern Ireland isn’t its only unifying principle: the pro-labor wing of the DUP, like its voters, is far from liberal on social issues.

Northern Ireland is home to a political battle similar to the debate over gay rights going on in US states like Indiana. Same-sex marriage remains outlawed in Northern Ireland, despite having been recognized in the rest of Britain in 2014.

A bakery near Belfast is currently facing legal troubles after refusing, on grounds of religious conscience, to bake a cake advocating gay marriage. The bakers are supported in their defense by the DUP.

At a political event on Thursday, DUP candidate Jim Wells said that in "a homosexual relationship, a child is far more likely to be abused and neglected." The social media response was immediate, angry – and UK-wide. Wells later apologized and resigned Monday from his position as health minister in Northern Ireland's local power-sharing assembly.

Other local issues, such as the annual unionist Orange parades, could be contentious, too – and more immediately threatening. Several high-level members of the DUP are members of the Orange Order, whose parades have sparked widespread rioting in the past.

Ultimately, some say, Northern Ireland may simply be too distant from Westminster thinking for either Labour or the Tories to find common ground. Today’s British politicians "are completely naive about Northern Ireland," says Gerry Lynch, a former Belfast political activist who now works in communications for the Anglican Church in Britain. "It’s been 20 years since they’ve had to think about it. The people who did understand it have all retired.”

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