Just thinking out loud and very speculatively in this post. Whehn Fianna Fáil decided they would establish some kind of presence in the north, they said that while they might stand for elections in the Northern Ireland Assembly, they would never seek seats at Westminster. Not, I suspect, out of any principles, for I believe they have none, but just to avoid the possibility of being in government in Dublin and negotiating with an EU partner government they were in opposition to in London. PSF long ago abandoned absentionism as a political principle, but they still refuse to take their seats at Westminster. They do, however, use the office facitilies they are entitled to there, and claim expenses. There were however noises during the expenses scandal that this arrangement would no longer be acceptable in a newly-changed climate, though the issue seems to have dropped off the radar. PSF are also of course already administering part of the UK, and so the refusal to go to Westminster is more symbolic than anything else.
I think it’s fair to say that most people expect a quite crushing Tory victory at the next UK general election. I’m one of them. Not so Michael Heseltine, who thinks that a hung parliament is more likely.
But in order to get an overall majority, David [Cameron] has got to have the biggest swing, with two exceptions, since the war.
I think David is doing a very good job, I think that the odds on him winning are significant, but the overall majority is a mountain to climb and I think he’s been absolutely right in making this point clear.
I think it’s very unlikely we’ll see a Labour government, that I do believe.
Then you come to another problem – there are not many parties… that will form any sort of relationship with the Conservatives, so the Conservatives have got to win outright or be sufficiently the largest party that there isn’t a coalition against them and they face the House of Commons, which of course will mean a relatively short Parliament.
It’s an interesting possibility. I would agree with him that there is next to no chance of a Labour victory, but if the economy takes an upturn, Labour succeed in mounting a strong campaign, and disillusioned voters chose the Liberal Democrats rather than the Tories in sufficent numbers, there might be some chance of a hung Parliament. At which point, Northern Ireland’s 18 seats may or may not prove crucial, as they proved after John Major’s narrow majority after 1992 was chipped at by by-elections and Tory splits, and the UUP forged an agreement with him.
In a hung Parliament, the seats PSF hold (now five, and likely to be the same after the next election I think) could make them a serious player in Westminster deal-making. Given that the Tories are once again unambiguously the Conservative and Unionist Party and formally allied to the UUP, and that they are likely to make savage cuts in public services and benefits in line with their underlying Thatcherism that would hurt Northern Ireland disproportionately, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that in such circumstances pressure would emerge from within northern nationalism to take the seats in Westminster to protect nationalist interests. In such a scenario, the case for retaining absentionism might well be weakened. Would pragmatic people like Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness spurn such an opportunity to have the British government dancing in part to their tune? I’m not sure. It’s likely that they would, on the grounds that it is not their job to determine the government of a country they wish to see leave Ireland. But then again, who remembers “no return to Stormont” and “not a bullet, not an ounce now”? Nothing is beyond the bounds of possibility.