Great news from East Belfast, where the Alliance Party’s Naomi Long has taken out First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson. Great to see an Alliance Party MP elected after 40 years, and 36 years after Stratton Mills, who had left after being elected from the Ulster Unionist Party, retired in 1974.
The Alliance are avowedly non-sectarian, though it has been difficult for them at times for them to maintain their identity. I look forward to seeing how they can shape themselves now on the Westminster stage. It is also a gain for the Liberal Democrats, with whom the Alliance are aligned.
Peter Robinson won his seat here in 1979, in a close three-way contest against the Ulster Unionist Party’s William Craig and the Alliance Party’s Oliver Napier, with less than a thousand votes separating the three candidates, and till tonight, it was considered a solidly safe seat for the DUP. As a hung parliament is likely, and the DUP will need someone to be able negotiate any arrangements, his leadership may well be on the line quite soon.
Well, ding dong, the witch is dead.
The Times/Ladbrokes seat predictor currently put the Conservatives six seats short of a majority. Suppose this prediction is accurate. It ignores a few details about Northern Ireland. They predict a seat for Sir Reg Empey, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, standing in alliance with the Conservative Party, which really puts the those elected as Conservatives at 321. South Antrim should really have been coloured as blue as any Conservative predictions in Britain. They also predict a seat for Rodney Connor in Fermanagh–South Tyrone, who has pledged to take the Tory whip under a loose arrangement. Add to that then the four predicted Sinn Féin seats. By their abstention, they bring the figure required for a majority to 324, rather than the standard figure given of 326.
The Conservatives would then be only two seats short of a majority, and could very reasonably expect to form a government. But to be secure, to sure of not losing any confidence motion, especially if the predictions are a little high for the party, they could turn then to the eight predicted seats of the Democratic Unionist Party. They would most likely guarantee some measure of relief from the expected public sector cuts to Northern Ireland. It would be a major turn around in Peter Robinson’s fortunes, whose position was in doubt only a few months ago. It would also consolidate the Conservative government’s Unionist stance on issues of disagreement in Northern Ireland, which could potentially have repercussions for any further negotiations.
David Cameron has shown himself aware of Conservative Party history on the Irish question, such as when he declared in 2008 that he had a “selfish and strategic interest” in Northern Ireland.
With apologies for going on about the recent meeting between these parties while more serious negotiations are ongoing, the history of the location came to mind. One might wonder about the symbolism of Hatfield House as the location for the talks between the Conservatives, the Ulster Unionists and the Democratic Unionists. This is the home of the Robert, 7th Marquess of Salisbury. In no way do I mean to impugn the marquess’s character, a political figure in his own right as a Conservative MP between 1979 and 1987. But it is interesting to remember that his great-great-grandfather, the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, led the first Unionist government. When William Ewart Gladstone, then leader of the Liberal Party, gave his support to Home Rule in 1886, his party split, with the Liberal Unionists, led by Lord Hartington and Joseph Chamberlain, aligning themselves with the Conservatives. Gladstone’s government fell and Salisbury led a Unionist government until 1892. It would not be far fetched to think that discussions between Unionists on both sides of the Irish Sea happened in 1886 in Hatfield House, just as they did this year.