Senior Conservative and Labour strategists probably paid very close attention to the launch of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) manifesto when it was released on April 21.
Virtually guaranteed to return the largest number of MPs from Northern Ireland, the DUP is being mooted as a potential kingmaker when it comes to the formation of the next government.
As the DUP manifesto proclaims: “This is Northern Ireland’s opportunity to contribute and shape British life like never before.”
The DUP manifesto is a confident (and unabashed) assertion of this status. It reads like a come-and-get-me proposition to a future prime minister – be that David Cameron or Ed Miliband.
Reading between the lines, this is a manifesto that seeks to leverage small but important wins for Northern Ireland in an uncertain election. Here are the DUP’s top goals and what they really mean.
Many DUP policies will be of interest to voters across the UK. Most noteworthy is the party’s declaration that it will resist any further cuts to front-line services and wants a real-term increase in health and education spending.
Taken together, the DUP’s leftish economic policies are a clear wink of the eye to the Labour camp and a future coalition involving the SNP, the Liberal Democrats or the Greens.
On some issues, though, the DUP appears to be flirting more in the direction of the blue corner. It supports the Conservative Party line when it comes to Europe, insisting that a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU must take place. It also wants a tougher approach on immigration, with stronger border controls put in place.
Other standout aims include expanding Heathrow and a root-and-branch review of the BBC, including the eventual scrapping of the licence fee. In a bid to quite literally strengthen the union between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, the DUP also wants to build a bridge or tunnel across the Irish Sea.
The DUP is also up front in its manifesto about squeezing as much direct financial benefit for Northern Ireland as it can from a future UK government.
The party puts reducing corporation tax in Northern Ireland at the top of its list of economic priorities. It is also committed to seeking other tax incentives from the UK Treasury to encourage greater foreign investment in Northern Ireland.
The DUP’s support in parliament is, therefore, likely to come at a high (fiscal) price for a future UK government.
There is also a ream of policies designed to cement Northern Ireland’s place within the UK (bridges and tunnels aside) and further the wider interests of domestic unionists.
It is perhaps these red-line demands which pose the greatest risk for the future stability of power-sharing in Northern Ireland.
Here, the ubiquitous trio of flags, parades and the past is again at the forefront. In a bid to reverse a controversial policy introduced by Belfast City Council in 2012, the DUP wants legal protection for flying the Union Flag.
It also advocates new legislation on parading in Northern Ireland. That would include scrapping the Parades Commission, a body which decides whether parades by either unionists or nationalists can go ahead. The DUP thinks the commission is overly sympathetic to nationalist demands.
Finally, the party seeks to enshrine a UK-wide definition of a “victim” which excludes perpetrators. This reflects an ongoing dispute between unionists and nationalists over whether people who committed terrorist offences during the Troubles in Northern Ireland can also be considered victims of the conflict.
A clear end game
The DUP is unlikely to get all that it wants from negotiations with a future UK government. But its wish-list/ransom note is likely to concentrate the minds of any potential coalition-builders.
Somewhat ironically, the DUP manifesto reduces the uncertainty of the post-election landscape. In the event of a hung parliament, the inevitable unpredictability is balanced by the unambiguous nature of the DUP’s demands.
The party has made clear, in black and white, not just what it promises but what it wants – a bluntness that is somewhat lacking in many of the other party manifestos.