Labour and Tories may seek unlikely coalition partners in Northern Ireland

Miliband’s eyeing up the DUP. Niall Carson/PA Wire

As the general election approaches, an overall majority government is looking about as likely as a second Nick Clegg pledge on tuition fees. Attention has now turned to the potential make-up of a coalition. The SNP and Plaid Cymru have already indicated that they will not prop up the Conservatives. But what of Northern Ireland’s political parties?

Here, the picture for Ed Miliband is also at least potentially rosy. Let us assume that the party breakdown of Northern Irish MPs remains the same in 2015 as 2010 – though this is a dangerous assumption, as I’ll explain. Certain Labour allies would include the SDLP (a sister party) with three seats, Alliance with one seat and Independent Sylvia Hermon.

The latter two allies are curiosities. Alliance’s Naomi Long eschews the coalition, even though her party is a sister organisation of the Liberal Democrats. Sylvia Hermon, the Independent, quit the Ulster Unionist Party in disgust when it formed a (seatless) pact with the Conservative Party at the 2010 general election. Her huge majority in North Down appears impregnable.

Some within Northern Ireland resent the SDLP’s status as a sister party to Labour, arguing that Alasdair McDonnell’s outfit is too green and nationalist. Given a tight election however, Miliband is even less likely to be receptive to such complaints than his predecessors.

Strange bedfellows …

With these five seats effectively added to Labour’s total, the question remains as to whether the Labour leader can entice backing from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), led at Westminster by Nigel Dodds and from Belfast by Peter Robinson.

The prospect of the atheist Miliband agreeing with Dodds on continuing the DUP’s veto on the introduction of gay marriage or abortion rights in Northern Ireland is an intriguing one. But needs must, especially if you believe in strong regional devolution as Miliband purports to.

Besides, Miliband may have little option. The DUP means business on these issues. The party has blocked gay marriage via a Petition of Concern in the Northern Ireland Assembly three times during the last four years, and DUP members strongly oppose change to marriage or abortion laws.

A cash incentive

Cash may be an even more important motive than religious conservatism, in which case the DUP may offer parliamentary assistance to the highest funder for Northern Ireland – and Labour doesn’t do austerity like the Conservatives.

But then, given the DUP’s status as Cameron’s only possible regional allies, the current Conservative fiscal caution might be, well, “relaxed” slightly. This could go even further than the £2 billion recently given to Northern Ireland under the Stormont House Agreement last Christmas.

Some of the above is predicated upon Northern Ireland returning the same election result as in 2010. This seems unlikely, in that the DUP ought to take back the (86% Protestant) East Belfast seat Peter Robinson lost last time, amid temporary political and personal difficulties.

Long’s 1,500 majority is looking precarious. The DUP’s Gavin Robinson (no relation to Peter) faces a strong opponent in Naomi Long, who trebled her vote in 2010. She and her party came under a lot of pressure during Loyalist protests over the removal of the Union flag from Belfast City Hall. Alliance’s East Belfast offices were firebombed, after the party backed the nationalist measure.

Sectarian rivalries run deep

Elsewhere, Northern Ireland’s election resembles the usual sectarian headcount, with the strongest association between religious affiliation and voting patterns anywhere in Europe. Two simple statistics from the 2010 election speak volumes about the continuing electoral polarisation, as stark as ever, 17 years after the Good Friday Agreement.

The correlation between the percentage of Catholics in a constituency and the combined vote for nationalist parties was 0.987; the correlation between the Protestant percentage and the vote for unionist parties was 0.943. Given 1.000 is a perfect relationship, it is clear that the communal deep freeze remains.

Where the Protestant-Catholic balance is fairly equal can we expect tight contests. Sinn Fein won Fermanagh and Tyrone by a mere four votes in 2010 and, up against a single Unionist candidate, the result will again be very close. North Belfast is currently held by the DUP’s Nigel Dodds, but with the seat now containing more Catholics than Protestants, a Sinn Fein triumph is not impossible, if the SDLP vote transfers to its nationalist rival.

So could Sinn Fein hold the balance of power? Even in these neediest of times, neither Cameron nor Miliband will waste too much time asking Sinn Fein’s MPs if they wouldn’t mind popping along to Westminster, swearing an Oath of Allegiance to a British Monarch and propping up a minority government while they’re at it.