Political Correspondent Noel McAdam looks at what is meant by a hung Parliament and what would its political effect be on Northern Ireland if it was the outcome after the General Election
What exactly is a hung Parliament?
It's the official term for when no single party has an overall majority in the House of Commons. If the General Election produces such an outcome on May 6, it will trigger inter-party negotiations behind closed doors in a bid to form some kind of workable government.
In the meantime, the previous administration will stay in power.
Is it really likely?
There is no certainty of a clear result next week. The polls put David Cameron's Tories ahead, but the lead in most of them would not be enough to claim a full majority.
Polls can be proved wrong and a lot can still happen between now and May 6.
But the odds have certainly been narrowing on a hung Parliament.
Why does this matter to Northern Ireland parties?
For all smaller parties in the Commons, the current situation offers the tantalising prospect of being big-time players on the Parliamentary scene for once. A number of the parties here are talking up their prospects of holding “leverage” at Westminster after the election and using it to press for major concessions for the province or particular causes.
There are two notable exceptions, though.
Sinn Fein is sticking hard to its abstentionist policy and says it does not care who forms the next UK Government
Not surprisingly, given its electoral tie-up with the Tories, the UUP is stressing that it is not interested in a hung Parliament. It prefers to highlight its “leverage” inside the Cameron camp. It also says a hung Parliament could destabilise the union, by handing influence to nationalist parties.
Could any local parties really have the deciding say?
They would need to be very lucky, with a lot of events running their way. Given the boost in support for the Lib Dems in the last two weeks, Nick Clegg is very likely to have by far the best hand at the political poker table.
But he could overplay it.
Nothing is impossible, and a party leader with a whiff of power in his nostrils will listen to all kinds of offers being made.
Are we talking actual coalitions?
The smart money would be on “understandings” being reached. That could involve an agreement to back a Government in key votes, in return for some favours.
Any Northern Ireland party lucky enough to find itself in such talks would also have to avoid asking for too much.
In the current financial climate it would surely be too much to expect the province to be totally shielded from any public spending cuts while the rest of the UK suffered.
Any examples from history to guide us?
There was a lot of speculation in the 1990s about John Major having a secret deal with the Ulster Unionists as his small Tory majority dwindled away. In his memoirs, Major denied that any deal had been struck. But it was a concern for nationalists at the time.
That experience flags up how a hung Parliament could destabilise the traditional “broker” image of a British Government, not taking sides between parties here.
There was also a lot of jockeying in the late 1970s as Jim Callaghan's Labour Government fought for survival. Two unionist MPs struck a deal to get a gas pipeline to Northern Ireland in return for backing Callaghan in a crunch 1979 vote of confidence. He still lost the vote by a margin of one, ushering in the Thatcher era. Nationalist MPs Gerry Fitt and Frank Maguire abstained.
So what's going to happen?
The blunt truth is nobody knows. It's all down to how the votes and seats work out. If there is a hung Parliament, negotiations could take weeks. Another election within a few months could not be ruled out.
Smaller parties could still have influence if a party wins only a small majority on May 6. Tiny majorities can disappear over the course of a Government’s lifetime, leaving a Prime Minister in need of outside help.