With opinions polls continuing to show tentative signs of a narrowing Conservative lead, talk of a hung parliament is growing. This has a distinctive significance for Northern Ireland, where signs of a political opportunity for local parties will be closely watched.
The DUP, which currently has 9 seats, is the most likely beneficiary despite facing an emerging electoral threat from Jim Allister's Traditional Unionist Voice. Sinn Féin currently have 5 seats, but their abstentionist position is unlikely to change. The SDLP (3 seats) and the Ulster Unionists (1 seats) will struggle to gain significant leverage.
The staunchly nationalist Ulster's Doomed! blog suggests a Conservative-DUP deal is a realistic prospect:
If the gap between, say, the Tory total and the number needed to form a majority was small, then the DUP could find themselves in a position of strength – especially since the Tories would be unlikely to want to get into bed with overt nationalists like the SNP or Plaid Cymru. The DUP, despite being seen by many as 'Ulster nationalists' are at least not actively seeking the dissolution of the UK. As social and economic conservatives they would have little ideological difficulty in cooperating with the Tories – the main problem may lie in the Tories non-merger with the DUP's rivals in the UUP. For the Tories, of course, the DUP's record of tolerance may reduce their salonfähigkeit, but where power is at stake, the Tories may be prepared to hold their noses.
A hung parliament could also strengthen Salmond’s hand. In return for his party’s cooperation, he wants not just more powers but support from one of the UK-wide parties for his referendum bill to get a hearing. That might precipitate the end of the union much more quickly than any change in the Catholic and Protestant birth rates in the North.
Whither Ulster unionism then? Would an independent Scotland want them? Would they want the union without Scotland? And if the answer is no in both cases, is this state prepared to take on the North?
'Be careful what you wish for' is surely the message in that last question, published on the morning of Ireland's austerity budget.
However, One suspects that King's own UUP background leads him to dismiss the DUP's chances too easily in this scenario.
In the circumstances of a hung parliament or a government with a small majority, the preferences of Tory backbenchers could be key, and its hard to believe that concessions to the DUP on the Stormont political process wouldn't be an easier sell for Cameron than a referendum on Scottish independence.
Ultimately, parliamentary arithmetic will be decisive. At the moment, the DUP are two seats ahead of the SNP's seven, and one behind the combined SNP/Plaid Cymru total of ten. The nationalists, however, have more scope for gains.
That said, the SNP and the DUP aren't necessarily mutually exclusive possibilities. If he falls short enough, Cameron could end up having to seek deals with both. Now that would be interesting.
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