This is my third general election as a Northern Ireland voter, and I don’t remember feeling this marginalised before. In 2001 and 2005, there was never any doubt that Labour would win. The contest in NI had no influence on this. The NI electorate wasn’t really concerned about what our politicians would do at Westminster, or who they would do it with. MPs were part of the numbers game to show where we all stood on territory and national identity.
This time, every seat counts. The polls are pointing towards a hung Parliament with the somewhat unprincipled LibDems appearing to favour a coalition with either the Tories or Labour – or perhaps a narrow Tory majority. Some of the highest profile issues such as tax, immigration and macro level economic policy have not been devolved and therefore are also of interest to us in the Celtic regions. Others, such as health and education, are covered in terms of what will be done in England, without candidates or the media making this clear. Labour have not claimed the credit for the substantial political achievement of devolution, no doubt because it’s regarded with such suspicion by the English.
So the first question in this election is: are you going to vote Labour, Liberal Democrat or Conservative? And the second is, if not, how will the party of your choice contribute towards a coalition or voting pact with two of the three main parties?
The first of these questions is only of marginal interest to us here. You can vote for UCUNF if you want to back the Tories, but even that vote isn’t for one of the Big Three, it’s for the Tories allied with the UUP. Unfortunately, canvassers for UCUNF have not called, so I haven’t been able to use my highly original killer line ‘I’m not a unionist and I’m not a Tory’. Perhaps the UCUNF candidates are too busy kicking themselves for signing up to work with a leader who is all too willing to put Northern Ireland at the top of the list once the removal van has left no.10, and not in a good way.
So we arrive at the second question, with the options I’ve outlined in a previous post. In other parts of the UK, a vote for a smaller party is an option as a protest vote or a strongly held opinion - Plaid Cmyru? SNP? Greens? BNP? But in every case, they are an alternative. Here, smaller parties are all we’ve got. Most candidates are telling us they’ll get the best deal for Northern Ireland, no doubt fantasising about holding the balance of power and saving the block grant here while being unconcerned about deep cuts in Sunderland or Glasgow. There’s no sense of how our MPs might contribute to UK-wide policy decisions, for example on Trident, ID cards, or tax rates.
Except of course in one instance – Sinn Féin. They won’t be arguing to protect anything, because they won’t be there. Gerry Adams has the brass neck to say he doesn’t care about the election result. Blaming the Brits is all very well, but it’s not going to stop your job going, your dole being time limited, your children’s university fees being increased and your hospital services being cut back. This time around, it’s a real possibility that Sinn Féin’s absence could put the Tories in. You’d have to be a very determined Irish republican not to mind about that.
So for the next few days I’ll watch the press coverage from over the water with interest, but give tomorrow night's local leader’s debate a miss. The most interesting aspect of this election is going to be what happens after the votes have been counted.